British Columbia

Central Coast First Nation preserves eulachon grease tradition as the fish returns to Bella Coola River

The Nuxalk College Eulachon Project aims to revitalize the First Nation's traditional practice of making eulachon grease despite 20 years without a healthy population of the fish in the Bella Coola River

Bella Coola River's eulachon run disappeared 20 years ago but is showing signs of recovery

Nuxalk College's eulachon project produced enough grease in reserve for each household. (Nuxalk College)

The Nuxalk Nation in Bella Coola is seeing signs that its eulachon run is returning after 20 years.

The fish traditionally harvested in the Bella Coola River had disappeared without any clear reason why, and the Nuxalk College is preparing for its recovery with an annual eulachon camp, where elders pass their knowledge on how to make grease from the small, silvery fish.

"There's a real strict process for making the grease, because if you don't cook it properly, then you can ruin all the fatty acids, omega-3s and the vitamins that come from the oil," said Marlene King, the cultural coordinator for Nuxalk College.

Eulachon are left to ferment for several days on a bed of cedar boughs. (Nuxalk College)

Eulachon grease is made by putting the fish in what's called a stink box, where the blood drains into cedar boughs laid on the bottom. The eulachon ferment for several days until their eyes turn red before they're moved to another box for cooking at a precise temperature that releases the grease. 

This year is the second year the college has co-ordinated the eulachon project, producing grease to distribute to Nuxalk members. King says it can be emotional for people to receive the traditional food.

"People were actually crying because they've never had eulachon in so many years, and they were just grateful that they were able to have a fresh feed."

The college is handing out one pint of eulachon grease to every Nuxalk household on reserve this week. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada shows there are over 900 people living on the Nuxalk reserve. The college will record the names of people who come to pick up their eulachon grease and then decide what to do with the remaining stock.

Eulachon returning

King says there was an eulachon run in the Bella Coola River this year, but it wasn't large enough to fish.

"Nobody was allowed to fish them, because we want to have more of them come back next year," she said.

Eulachon is cooked at a particular temperature in order to release the grease. (Nuxalk College)

Speculation around the cause of the eulachon run ending after 1998 centres around the possibility they were overfished or eaten by other mammals.

The Nuxalk College's project for the last two years has sourced its eulachon from the Nass River, north of Bella Coola, instead.

A Nuxalk tradition

Eulachon grease has been an integral part of Nuxalk tradition as a food source and for trade.

Nuxalk College administrator Lawrence Northeast says grease from the Central Coast was traded all the way into the United States as part of the grease trail, an overland route connecting First Nations through trade.

Nuxalk member Esther Hans and her grandson at the eulachon camp in Bella Coola (Nuxalk College)

Northeast says he's heard about the significance of eulachon grease as far inland as Kamloops.

"The woman who was responsible for distributing grease had, next to the chief, one of the highest or mot important jobs in the nation," he said.

Eulachon grease has also been used on other foods as a cooking oil and taken by some people as a traditional medicine.

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Audrey McKinnon is a former host and reporter at CBC Radio. She currently lives in Prince George, B.C. where she works as a writer and artist.