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Iconic oily 'candlefish' nears extinction

Small smelt-like eulachon are about 20 centimetres long and prized by First Nations for their oil content. - File
Small smelt-like eulachon are about 20 centimetres long and prized by First Nations for their oil content.
— image credit: File

The Fraser River eulachon, an oily smelt-like fish prized by First Nations, has been designated an endangered species after a 98 per cent decline in its numbers over the past decade.

The listing was made by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), which warns the outlook is "grim" for the small iconic fish that may be nearing extinction.

Eulachon, also spelled oolichan, is dubbed saviour fish by some aboriginals who counted on it to bridge over gaps in the salmon catch and candlefish by others, because they're so oily they can be dried and burned like candles.

Some B.C. First Nations rendered eulachon down into a grease that was carried vast distances along historic "grease trails – pre-contact trade routes that connected coastal and inland villages.

"There used to be millions of them," Sto:lo fishery advisor Ernie Crey said. "But they're just not there any more."

COSEWIC cites a mix of potential culprits for the precipitous drop in eulachon stocks, including changing environmental conditions affecting marine survival, predators and fishing.

Crey points to boats in the offshore shrimp trawl fishery, which pull up eulachon as a bycatch along with their shrimp.

"They just jettison them overboard as waste," he said. "Theres no market for them so there's no interest in them."

He also suspects eulachon have been hurt by habitat damage along the lower Fraser from industrial activity.

Log booms on the lower river grind up bark and deposit it on the river bottom, covering spawning habitat, he said.

Channel dredging, boat traffic, municipal sewage and chemical contaminants from farmland may also be factors, he said.

COSEWIC's decision will go to the federal environment minister, who will consider whether to also designate eulachon under Canada's Species at Risk Act (SARA).

Crey said a listing under SARA would force the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to take a hard look at fisheries that threaten eulachon, as well as sources of habitat damage, and potentially force corrective action.

Eulachon populations on the central coast are now also rated endangered by COSEWIC, although ones further north in the Skeena and Nass Rivers are only considered "threatened."

Also now listed endangered is the olive clubtail, a very rare stream-dwelling dragonfly with striking blue eyes that's found at only a handful of sites in B.C. and has been hurt by habitat loss and activity like beach recreation.

One bright spot in the committee's findings was that the humpback whale, considered threatened since 1985, has made a steady comeback and is now being downgraded to a "special concern" – a lower risk category.

An estimated 18,000 humpbacks now live in the North Pacific and the population is growing by around six per cent a year.

Humpbacks had been hunted to the edge of extinction but rebounded after whaling ended in 1967.

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