CHAPTER FOUR: Harvest from the Sea
Part One - The Starvation Fish
In the early spring of 1874, the Anglican missionary William Collison left Fort Simpson by canoe to pay a visit to the village of Kincolith at the mouth of the Nass River. It was eulachon season, and at nearby Fishery Bay the Nisga’a people had gathered for the fishing. They were joined by Tlingit from Alaska, Gitskan from the upper Skeena, Haida from the Queen Charlottes, Tsimshian from the coast, even Heiltsuk from as far away as Bella Bella. As many as 10,000 people congregated on the banks of the river in their sprawling camps, attracted by the annual arrival of millions of the silvery, smelt-like fish so rich in oily fat that it was called the candlefish because, as Collison explained, “when partly dried the Indians used it as a torch by night.”
The scene which greeted the missionary filled his senses. Out on the river, which boiled with the presence of so many fish returning to spawn, the people dipped their nets and set their traps. The water was a turmoil of splashing seals, sea lions and porpoises in hot pursuit of the fish, and screaming eagles and gulls, the latter so numerous, said Collison, “they appear as snowflakes filling the air.” On shore, women and children hurried about the camps drying the catch on racks and smoking it over open fires. Smoke stung the eyes and the pungent odour of fermenting fish clogged the nostrils.
Eulachon was known as the “starvation fish” because it arrived at the end of March when winter food supplies were running low. The people greeted it with relief and gratitude. Once enough had been preserved for eating, the rest was rendered into oil, or grease. “Formerly the grease was extracted from the fish by stones made red hot in large fires,” Collison explained. “These heated stones were cast into large boxes filled with fish and water, and the process was repeated until the grease floated freely on the surface. It was then skimmed into chests made of red cedar. Now, however, the fish are boiled on small fireplaces built of stone and mud, and the grease can be extracted with less labour and fuel in a shorter time.”
Rich in nutrients, eulachon grease was a staple in the diet of the First Nations who used it as a condiment, a medicine and a preservative. At room temperature it has the consistency of soft butter and was easily stored and transported in cedar boxes or the hollow bulbs and stems of bull kelp. First Nations whose territories did not include a eulachon river negotiated to get access to the seasonal fishery, or traded for the grease. There was a regular exchange between coastal people and inland tribes along the so-called “grease trails” to the interior.
As many as three dozen coastal rivers supported a spawning stock of eulachon, though people concentrated on a few important sites in each territory. The Haisla exploited major runs on the Kitimat, Kemano, Kildala and Kitlope rivers. For the Nuxalk, the Bella Coola River supported an important run. Different Kwakwaka’wakw groups gathered at two main sites: Gwa’yi on the Kingcome River at the head of Kingcome Inlet and Dzawadi at the mouth of the Klinaklini River. The Squamish River sustained a major fishery, and the Sto:lo harvested the fish in the lower reaches of the Fraser. For all these groups, eulachon was second in importance only to salmon in their diet. It was also important ceremonially. Large quantities were consumed by guests and burned by hosts at lavish “grease feasts”.
The arrival of Europeans on the coast did not disrupt this annual harvest. The newcomers did not recognize much profit to be made from the eulachon so they more or less left the fish alone. A small commercial fishery operated on the Nass River until the 1940s and the Fraser until the late 1990s, but for the most part the eulachon played a minor part in the coastal fishery.
The starring role belonged to the salmon.
Next time: The rise of Port Essington