At this time of year, the oolichan would be plentiful in the Fraser River.
But not now, according to environmentalist and fisherman Terry Slack, who said you could once see them passing by at the foot of Cambie Street.
“Stocks are so low now. There’s a risk of them disappearing forever.”
Slack will be speaking at a walking tour during Earth Week about how rehabilitating the area by the river will help restore oolichan runs. Held April 18 from 11 a.m. to noon, it will start at the lower level of Marine Gateway station by Cambie and Southwest Marine Drive.
Slack said the biggest contributor to their demise is habitat loss, something he has witnessed over the last 65 years.
Slack, who is also the director of the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society, said oolichan is part of a complex food chain. “There used to be hundreds and hundreds, thousands and thousands of fish. They’d feed the marshes. They’d feed the birds. There’s over 24 difference species by the river that benefits from this fish.”
White sturgeons would swim down the Fraser River to meet the oolichan in a feeding frenzy clash but now the sturgeons are disappointed. “It’s a huge situation where this species depend on this fish. They swim all the way from Hope, down to the Fraser River bridge,” said Slack.
He called the area the “Serengeti of the river.” Or it used to be.
“Now I see starving eagles. I see starving ducks. I see starving waterfowls,” he said.
Having the area expanded and recovered would make a great difference to oolichan, said Slack.
“This piece of land looks abandoned, broken down with concrete. It’s a huge mess, really, but it has three streams and we want to daylight the area.”
Daylighting means the redirection of a stream into an above-ground channel with the goal of restoring riverbanks.
Slack said another way to help the oolichan recover is to get control over the shrimp fishing off the west coast of Vancouver Island where the fish is bycatch.
Oolichan is the Chinook term for a type of ocean fish, a smelt, which gets fat during spawning. It is commonly known as “candlefish” because, when the fish is caught, dried and hung on a wick, it can be burned as a candle.
It is also known as the “saviour fish,” said Slack, because it would be the first fresh food after winter the indigenous people would have.
A Royal B.C. Museum report said oolichan were preserved in many ways because they were highly coveted as a food source and as a trade item. They were boiled, baked or fried to be eaten right away or they were preserved to be eaten throughout the year.
Rendered oolichan grease was used for medicinal purposes.