Name that fish

 

Quah-rah, Ulken, Anchovies, Olthen', All-Can, Uth-le-chan, Uthulhuns, othlecan, ulichan, fathom-fish, Oulachan, "those little finny swarming beings of the deep," Oolá-han, uthlecan, ulluchans, Ulachans, oolachan, Hoolakans, Hooligan . . .

If this list is any indication, frontiersmen had a hell of a time figuring out what, precisely, to call this thing. In 1856, when Dr. William Fraser Tolmie, a Hudson Bay Company merchant, gave naturalist George Suckley a basket of baitfish to consider for his “Report on the fishes collected on the Pacific Railroad Survey," it's little wonder Tolmie wrote in a note that "The Indian name of the species is almost unspellable."

But the 9-inch, slim-bodied eulachon, or Pacific smelt (not to be confused with the freshwater Delta smelt of California), might soon be on the tip of more tongues: on Tuesday, NOAA listed a distinct population segment (DPS) of this silver, googly-eyed fish as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.  Plenty of evidence exists, says NOAA, that eulachon from Northern California to British Columbia are "at or near historically low numbers," nowhere near the abundance described in early accounts. (Under the ESA, a DPS is a "discrete," but "significant" sub-population, treated as a species.)

Like salmon, eulachon spend 3-5 years maturing in the open ocean before returning to freshwater ("anadromy") to spawn and die ("semelparity") in the beginning stretches of snowmelt-fed Northwest rivers.  They're most prominent in the Fraser River system of BC and the Columbia River system, but also found in smaller coastal rivers like the Klamath River and Mad River of California, which mark the southern end of the DPS.

The Cowlitz Indian Tribe of Washington has witnessed the Pacific smelt's decline firsthand, and submitted a petition to NOAA to list the DPS in 2007. Their petition spurred NOAA to do a status review of the eulachon (which includes an appendix of historical smelt accounts, from which the various monikers above are drawn). This winter, eulachon were seen in Cowlitz's stretch of the Columbia just one day. For the Cowlitz's annual eulachon ceremony on March 6, none were to be found. At one point, however, smelt were so plentiful on the Columbia that natives simply dipped them out of the river. Here's an early account from Gabriel Franchère in his 1811–1814 journal:

This fish, which is very abundant, is caught by means of a scoop or rake, which is simply a long pole to one end of which they have fastened sharply pointed pegs; by pulling it back and forth through the water they catch the fish on the pegs and soon have a canoe full. The women dry these fish, which furnish their principal food supply during the months of April, May and June, threading them when dry in a double row on cords which are six feet long. They even trade in them with the natives of the upper river, for these fish are not caught further up than the territory of the Chreluits (Chinook Indians), about 15 leagues from the mouth of the Columbia.

The eventual impacts of the eulachon's designation are unknown, but not expected to be as influential, or controversial, as the salmon's listing. Protections already in place for salmonids will help Pacific smelt as well. In any case, as of May 17, regulators will have to factor in the Pacific smelt when considering fisheries, water allotments, and so on.

Perhaps the designation will help ensure that the Cowlitz  have eulachon to dip out of the river. The fish is a rich staple, high in fat — as much as 15 percent of its body weight — which has lead to another nickname: candlefish. String a wick through a dried smelt, and you can light your way. And it's in designations like this one that the ESA can take on an environmental justice flavor. Access to traditional resources is an EJ issue, arguably, since EJ is about the equal distribution of environmental benefits and costs. It's only just that tribes have access to this nutritional, culturally-important fish.

And apparently, they taste great. Even Meriwether Lewis thought so:

I find them best when cooked in Indian stile, which is by roasting a number of them together on a wooden spit without any previous preperation whatever. they are so fat they require no additional sauce, and I think them superior to any fish I ever tasted, even more delicate and lussious than the white fish of the lakes which have heretofore formed my standart of excellence among the fishes.  I have heard the fresh anchovey much extolled but I hope I shall be pardoned for beleiving this quite as good.

 

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