Eulachon fishery - Pacific Region

Species Information

Integrated Fisheries Management Plan

Fishery Information

Eulachon (also known as candlefish or oolichan) belong to the family Osmeridae or smelts. The scientific name for eulachon is Thaleichthys pacificus, a name derived from the Greek roots thaleia (rich), ichthys (fish) and Pacific (Ocean), which refers to the high oil content found in these little fish.

Eulachons are small, short-lived, anadromous smelts that can be found from the southern Bering Sea to northern California, approximately in the area corresponding to the coastal temperate rain forest. Within BC, they have been documented spawning in 33 rivers, but may only use 14-15 on a sustained basis. Of these, the major river systems where eulachon return to spawn are the Fraser, Skeena, Nass, and Klinaklini.

Eulachon are so high in oil content that they can be dried, fitted with a wick through the mouth and used as a candle. The oil is unique among fish oils in that it is a solid at room temperatures with the consistency of soft butter and a golden hue. As well as a source of fresh food, eulachon lipids may be extracted for 'grease' production. Eulachon grease continues to be an important part of the First Nations diet. The trails used to reach the traditional fisheries and to carry the rendered oil back for trade were known as the "grease trails".

Around BC, eulachon may be found on the offshore shelf about Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait, Queen Charlotte Sound, and the West Coast of Vancouver Island, generally at depths of 80-200 m.

For reasons unknown, eulachon abundance have shown a declining trend in many rivers throughout their distribution in recent years. There was a sudden drop in returns to several rivers in 1994, most notably in the Fraser and Columbia. Eulachon have virtually disappeared in California and in the last two years they have not been seen in several BC rivers. Rivers which experienced virtually no returns in 2000 were: Stikine, Unuk, Skeena, Kitimat, Kemano, Kitlope, Bella Coola, Kimsquit, Owikeeno, and Kingcome Rivers. Concurrently, there has been a recent increase in the abundance of eulachons in marine waters, off BC and parts of Alaska. While this is an encouraging sign, previous observations of high eulachon abundance in marine waters were not followed by any apparent increases in spawning biomass in freshwater rivers.

Factors hypothesized to have detrimental effects on eulachon returns can be broken down into "in-river" and "marine" effects. In-river effects may include: habitat loss, pollution, directed fisheries, logging, and marine mammal predation. Marine effects may include: oceanographic changes due to global warming or other factors, bycatch from commercial fisheries, changes in food abundance or distribution, and predation.

Key Legislation

Key legislation governing activities in these fisheries includes the following:

  • Fisheries Act
  • Pacific Fishery Regulations, 1993
  • Fishery (General) Regulations
  • Aboriginal Communal Fishing Licence Regulations
  • The British Columbia Sport fishing Regulations (1996)
  • Oceans Act
  • Pacific Fishery Management Area Regulations

For further information, please visit the Key Legislation page.