By MARK HUME
Toronto Globe and Mail
June 23, 2007
At the gathering, elders from 10 provincial bands, including the Nuxalk (pronounced new-hawk), Kitasoo, Oweekeno and Haisla, spoke with anger and sadness about the loss of a small, herring-like fish, known as eulachon, that until recently returned in such numbers they turned the river black.
In 1995, when the last big run came in, there were millions of eulachon, so many they spilled out onto the gravel bars in writhing waves. Since then, the river has been nearly empty of fish.
"Every year we wait. Every year the seals, the seagulls, the ducks, the swans, the geese, they sit along the river waiting," said Oweekeno Chief Frank Johnson.
There has been a coastwide collapse of eulachon over the past decade, but in few places has it been as dramatic as in the Bella Coola Valley, where the run disappeared almost overnight.
Rudolph Ryser, chair of the Center For World Indigenous Studies, a U.S.-based nonprofit research and education organization, said the loss of eulachon is culturally devastating for tribes throughout the Pacific Northwest. "It is essential to the people of this part of the world ... the eulachon is essential to life."
At this spring's "crisis gathering," as it was called in posters tacked up on telephone poles in Bella Coola, about 250 miles north of Vancouver, elders told stories about the days of plenty and issued a plea for help to government. They want scientists to find out why the eulachon have gone from British Columbia's coast -- and they want a fisheries-restoration project to bring back the runs of small, silver fish prized for their rich oil.
Native leaders are discussing sending delegations to the provincial capital, Victoria, as well as to Ottawa and the United Nations, to draw attention to their plight. Without eulachon, they feel a culture that has survived 12,000 years is crumbling.
"It is very painful when you lose something that has been the backbone of your people," said Percy Starr, hereditary chief of the Kitasoo band. "... It's about more than the loss of a resource. It's about the loss of a culture. The loss of eulachon is spiritual. ... This is the foundation of a people."
Spencer Siwallace is 28, a newly elected Nuxalk chief who recently returned to Bella Coola with a university degree in forestry and a fierce desire to change things. He opened the gathering, telling of sitting by the river recently and dreaming of a boy running to the water to get a bucket of eulachon for dinner.
"The river wasn't clear. ... It was black with eulachon. Dozens of families were scooping eulachon with their bare hands. ... They looked so happy, so healthy, so content.
"I opened my eyes and looked out at the barren river. There were no children catching eulachon with their bare hands, no families working together. ... There were no eulachon. The camps were all deserted. ... As I sat there, I realized I had been looking into the past.
"I was the boy sent down with the bucket to catch dinner," he said, before lowering his head to sob as about 100 elders and chiefs looked on silent and grim-faced.
They took turns then, passing a microphone around the gymnasium in the community center, trying to describe the magnitude of the damage. Gwen Pollard said she was raised on eulachon oil, which was used in bread-making and eaten daily as a dipping sauce, but now there is so little found in the village that people guard it like gold.
"It is a real big disaster," said Glenn Clellaman, who had just come in from fishing the Bella Coola River for spring salmon. But because of high water, and declining stocks, there were so few caught the Nuxalk could not serve salmon, the traditional main course at feasts.
Clellaman said the riverbanks had once been "filled with small, little houses. We called them 'stink boxes' and that's where we fermented the eulachons. You look there now and ... it's bare, eh. But you still see a little bit of the remains of the boxes left and now it's overgrown and dying."
"We can no longer tolerate what we have been through," said Ross Neasloss, chief of Kitasoo from Klemtu, a small village on Swindle Island, north of Bella Coola. He, like many others, blamed commercial fishing for reducing not only the stocks of eulachon, but also salmon, herring, abalone and halibut.
Anthropologists and native-rights lawyers describe eulachon as a "cultural keystone species" vital to the identity of native people.
Early missionaries gave eulachon religious currency by noting it returned at Easter, and some native bands referred to it as "the savior fish," because it ended months of winter hunger.
At the Feast of Shame -- so named to reflect shame on the government -- one speaker recalled how everyone once ran from church to fish in their Sunday best when the eulachon arrived.
Eulachon thrived until relatively recently and then, about a decade ago, began to decline from California to Alaska.
Few rivers have had as stunning a drop as the Bella Coola, where a run of several million fish fell to an estimated 1,200. Researchers netted only 50 this year.
Megan Moody, a young Nuxalk woman working on her master's in the Fisheries Center at the University of British Columbia, said the Bella Coola run collapsed in 1996, the same year the federal government opened a shrimp trawl fishery in Queen Charlotte Sound.
Bella Coola is on the mainland at the head of a deep fjord that leads to Queen Charlotte Sound. The trawl nets took an estimated 90 tons of eulachon on the central coast that year. While the shrimp fishery was later closed in Queen Charlotte Sound, it has continued in Bella Coola and elsewhere.
Moody said the impact of the trawl fishery, climate change, increased predation and alterations to river hydrology, caused by logging, are all suspects in stock declines.
Krista Robertson, a Victoria-based lawyer who specializes in native-rights cases, said tribes could have grounds for suing the federal government or seeking a judicial review of the shrimp-trawl fishery.
"Legal action is not the answer necessarily ... but being ready to litigate can get you action," she said. "I don't think it would be hard to prove a profound native dependence on eulachon."
Indeed, the courts may soon hear that argument. Kevin Doyle, a Victoria lawyer, said in a recent e-mail that he has been instructed by the Komoyue band on northern Vancouver Island to pursue legal action against the federal and provincial governments for the loss of eulachon from traditional diets.
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