Animals -> Fish -> Searun Fish -> Eulachon


Eulachon, an oily fish, has been known as “candlefish” because First Nations cultures used the dried fish as a torch at night [64].

Eulachon has been available in these main rivers along the mainland coast of British Columbia: Stikine, Nass, Skeena, Kitimat, Kitlope, Bella Coola, Kingcome, Klinaklini and the Fraser [62]. Eulachon are known to have been in the more northerly rivers of the northwest coast [3]. The main spawning runs on the northwest coast have been the Nass, Kitimat and Bella Coola Rivers; those who inhabited these regions treasured ownership of eulachon fishing rights especially for the oil that was rendered from eulachon [4]. Northwest coast villages that had hereditary rights to rivers with good eulachon runs made eulachon oil for their own use, but also for trading. Northwest coast villagers further away from good eulachon fishing sites traveled to these sites and bought temporary rights to fish and render the oil, camping near the rivers until they had rendered the oil, and then returning to their homes with it [1, 5].

The Nass River has been the main eulachon river on the northern coast and the oil produced here reported as superior in quantity and quality to that of other rivers of the coast of British Columbia [32, 64]. The huge numbers of fish at the mouth of the Nass River made it a major oil making region [31]. The Tlingit traveled every year to the river “Nass”, which means “Food Depot” in Tlingit; they named the culture living in the region the “Nishga=Nass-ka”, which means “People of the Nass” in Tlingit. The Nishga on the Nass River are part of the Tsimshian Peoples, which also included the Gitksan (Gitxsan) on the Upper Skeena above the canyon at Kitselas, the Coast Tsimshian on the lower part of the Skeena and the adjoining Coast, and the Southern Tsimshian on the coast and south of the islands. People from all divisions of the Tsimshian, Tlingit and Haida journeyed to the Nass River to eulachon sites in late winter and set up fishing camps. The Nishga of the upper Nass were referred to as the kitanwili’•ks, which means “people staying temporarily”, because they moved downriver during the eulachon fishing period [30]. The Coast Tsimshian camped at the Nass River [32]. Eulachon were not available in the Upper Skeena, where the Gitskan resided, so they journeyed once a year to the lower Nass River to catch eulachon [58]. The journey was physically demanding for them, but they treasured it for the social and economic opportunities. Most of the Southern Tsimshian left their winter villages to go eulachon fishing, and returned to the winter village to stockpile eulachon and its oil in permanent lodges [30]. Non-residents of the Nass (i.e. Non-Nishga cultures) journeyed from the interior early in the year, while the snow was still deep in order to reach the Nass River for fishing time (mid March). They traveled hundreds of miles with their belongings on sleighs drawn by dogs or themselves. The non-Tsimshian among them also brought furs (usually marmot and rabbit skins, but also martin, mink, and bear skins), to pay the resident cultures of the river for fishing rights and to pay them for using their nets and shelter in their fishing lodges. It was reported that in times of famine, they sold their young children. The Coast First Nations and Native Amerindians from Alaska and further south canoed to the Nass to catch eulachon or barter for eulachon oil. The Alaskan cultures, the Haida, and the Tsimshian fought to gain control of eulachon fishing on the Nass. The Nishga who occupied most of the upper Nass were able to guard it against intruders but allowed the Tsimshians, who they recognized as fellow tribesmen of the same language, to keep their own fishing camps in the lower waters of the river [64]. The Tsimshian caught eulachon at the end of winter on the Nass River before the river ice broke (February to April) [30]. They caught them at the mouth of the River Nass, where they were met by Haida and Tlingit fishermen and traders [31]. The Tsimshian had a monopoly on the grease trade making them very rich [30]. The People of Port Simpson (Tsimshian) also had hereditary rights to catch eulachon on the Nass River, and they camped near Red Bluff on the Nass River and caught eulachon in March. In ancient times, the entire group canoed to the Nass River about the end of February to prepare to catch eulachon. Since at least the early 80s, only a few families travelled (by motor boat) to the Nass River to catch eulachon and make oil [54].

Apart from the Nass River, the Coast Tsimshian also caught eulachon at the Skeena River [32]. The eulachon of Knight Inlet were extremely valuable because of their oil and the South Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw), moved there around March to set up camp, catch eulachon and make oil. The Nuxalk caught eulachon at Knight Inlet and at the Bella Coola River, which was a major source of eulachon [15, 18-20, 24, 52]. The eulachon runs on the Chilkat River were the only important ones in the Tlingit region [8]; and the Tlingit caught eulachon in the rivers of the Chilkat territory and at Yakutat, Dry Bay and Chilkoot from the end of February to mid May [7, 67]. The Haisla caught them in the rivers of Kitimat, Kildala, Kemano and Kitlope; and the Native Americans of Southeast Alaska caught them in the Chilkat, Stikine and Nass Rivers [13, 29]. The Kitimat Haisla camped in a fishing village located near the Kitimat River mouth in March and April to catch eulachon [63]. The British Columbia Indigenous Peoples caught them at the Nass, the Skeena, the Kitimat, the Bella Coola, the Kingcome, the Fraser and the Stikine Rivers. The prehistoric Indigenous Peoples of the Central Coast of British Columbia caught them in early spring in interior coastal rivers [14, 25]. The cultures of Southern Alaska and Northern British Columbia caught them in April and March at the mouth of the Skeena, Nass and Stikeen Rivers and the Bella Coola fished them in April in the Bella Coola River [56, 65]. Eulachon were available in the Haihais region and the Oowekeeno (Hieltsuk) region but were not available in the Bella Bella (Hieltsuk) region so the Bella Bella obtained eulachon oil through trade with the Bella Coola, Oowekeeno and Kitamaat [26]. The Quileute did not have access to eulachon in their region, therefore they traded with Nootka in the north: camas and sea mammal blubber were traded for eulachon grease [27].

Eulachon ran on the Squamish and Homathko rivers but nowhere else in their region of British Columbia so they were also obtained from trade with the Tsimshian [35, 37]. The Coast Salish also caught eulachon in the Fraser river [45]. Eulachon used to spawn in the Toba Inlet of the Coast Salish for around two weeks in March, but enemies of the Toba Inlet people affixed a dead bear in the inlet, and the eulachon never returned there to spawn [41]. The Stalo of British Columbia traveled to catch eulachon as they headed upstream to spawn in the Chilliwack River [49]. The Tlawitis journeyed to Tsawadi Village and set up camp there as it was near the mouth of the Klinaklini River where they caught eulachon; the camp consisted of cabins, smokehouses, storage shacks, ripening pits and fire pits [53].

The Tlingit of the northwest coast caught a fish from the smelt family, Thaleichthys pacificus, which they called “ssag”. This small fish appeared in the rivers at the end of February for a brief period. The fish returned at the end of April to the middle of May in larger numbers and size. To catch the fish they used traps and hooks or hand nets made out of sinew. The fish were thrown into canoes to render the oil: the canoes were half buried in the sand and secured by posts, heated stones were added and the resulting oil was removed from the surface [7].


Eulachon have been/and still are caught in late winter and early spring (spawning season) [5, 7-10, 14, 18, 25, 30-32, 41, 44, 46, 49, 53-56, 63-65, 67].

Eulachon were mostly caught using rakes and various types of nets, although a few cultures used traps, hooks and spears [1, 2, 4, 7, 9, 10, 13, 14, 18, 22-24, 28, 35, 41, 42, 44, 47, 49, 53, 55, 60, 63-65, 67].

The North Pacific Coast Indigenous Peoples used a variety of tools to catch eulachon: tubular nets and hooks, dip nets and herring rakes. The tubular net was a long net with a funnel-shaped mouth. When the net was full, a hook was used to lift the end, and the end was untied in order to empty the net into the canoe. The herring rake was a pole with several spikes along the bottom third of the rake [55].

The Tlingit also used a variety of traps and hooks, hand nets and dip nets [10]. Traps, hooks, and hand nets could be made of sinew in the Chilkat territory, dip nets from a canoe when fishing at Yakutat and the Dry Bay, and tiny cylindrical funnel traps when fishing at Chilkoot [7, 10, 67]. The dip net was cone-shaped with a bottom that opened and closed with the aid of a string. One man navigated the canoe and the other placed the net in a large school of fish. When full, the contents of the net were emptied into the boat by opening the bottom hole using the drawstring. When the canoe was full, they went ashore and women and elder men emptied the fish into cleaned canoes to render grease from them; for a better-flavored product, they ripened them [7, 10, 67]. Tradition claims that the long funnel-shaped net used by the Haisla was invented by a Haisla girl who got her inspiration watching a sculpin gulp young trout [13].

The Nuxalk caught eulachon they called “ooligan” from boats using seine nets that were hauled onto the boats and the fish placed in buckets. When the fishermen reached the shore, the fish were placed in big fish bins called “stink boxes” [14, 23].

Most of the Coast Salish, including the Stalo of British Columbia, used nets or net-like devices to catch eulachon. They used nets with a triangular frame and also scooped them from the river with loosely woven open work baskets made of red cedar and laced with wild cherry bark [35, 36, 41, 49]. They caught them in canoes using a dip net which was tiny, tapered and was tied to a round elliptical or triangular wood frame at the end of a pole [49]. The Katzie Coast Salish, unlike most Coast Salish cultures, used rakes as instructed by Swaneset’s wife. According to tradition, their mythical hero Swaneset established their winter village on the Fraser River after coming back from the sky with his sky wife and a container of eulachon which she released at the village; since that time, they returned to the same site. Their rake was a cedar pole connected to bone or Saskatoon wood teeth or black haw twigs with their thorns lined up as teeth [44]. The Kwakiutl, Chinookans of Lower Columbia and Haida also used rakes/herring rakes, the latter culture using them from canoe at night; the Chinookans of Lower Columbia also used scoop nets [28, 47, 60]. The Indigenous Peoples of the Northwest Coast used a herring rake made of a pole with a row of nails; in early days, the nails were made of sharp pieces of bones. The fisherman swung the rake like a paddle and then shook the fish into a canoe [1]. They used a funnel-shaped net and that according to local tradition, the Nishga of the Northwest Coast used to use the “herring rake” before learning from the Haida how to fabricate and use the funnel-shaped nets. Their herring rake was a long level board with sharp bone points at one edge [4].

The Tlawitis, Eyak, Bella Coola, and Nishga also used nets to catch eulachon [9, 42, 53, 64, 65]. In former times, the Tlawitis fished them from canoes using funnel-shaped nets and rakes, both made from cedar bark, and in later times they fished them from punts or power boats using dip or seine nets. The catch was taken to the ripening pits [53].

The Bella Coola formerly trapped them with a cylinder basket trap and a conical dip net or used a long tapered net. They attached the mouth of the long tapered net to two poles a few feet apart in the water and when they had enough eulachon, they pulled the net into the canoe [42, 65]. When using a cylindrical trap, the catch was emptied into a dip net. By the 1980s, the Bella Coola caught most of their eulachon using seine nets [42]. The Eyak set traps under the ice when they caught eulachon early in the season in February and used dip nets or multibarbed spears later in the fishing season from lighted canoes [9].

The cultures that migrated to the Nass, and who were granted fishing privileges caught eulachon at night from canoes or boats through holes chiseled in the ice. They chiseled two holes as openings for each net. At either end of a twenty-foot hole, they placed one pole. They hung the mouth of the net on the pole ends using red cedar rope, used another pole to push the net to the bottom and kept the mouth of the net open using a special fixture loom. The net was long and purse-shaped and narrowing from the mouth, with the narrowest end at the top of the net. Another hole was made to haul the narrow end of the net once it was full of fish. The narrow end was tied when let down, but once it was drawn up to the top, they untied the narrow end and flung the fish on the ice, in the boat or canoe. During the day, the men, women and children hauled the fish to the shore and place them in square or oblong bins [64].


The flesh was eaten dried, boiled, fried, baked, salted, smoked, barbecued, grilled, salted and raw [2, 5, 6, 8, 14, 18, 21-24, 26, 28-30, 41, 44, 46, 49, 53, 58, 62, 65]. The Tlingit treasured it and most Indigenous Peoples of British Columbia considered it a favorite food [14, 67]. The Gitksan ranked eulachon the highest in prestige and food value, referring to the fish as “the little friend to all the world” [58]. Eulachon was the Tsimshian’s most important seafood after salmon and it was mentioned as a help in their mythology stories of starvation [31, 33].

The flesh was preserved by smoking, drying, salting, freezing or combinations of these [8, 14, 18, 21, 23, 24, 29, 41, 49, 62, 64]. The Chinookans of Lower Columbia ate the flesh fresh and also smoke-dried and stored it for winter consumption, skewering the fish transversely before smoking [28]. The Native Americans of Southeast Alaska considered dried and smoked eulachon a delicacy. They strung them together on a twine before smoking and drying. They considered eulachon a good fish boiled, barbecued or fried. Now, since at least the ‘80s, the fish are salted for preservation [29]. The Tsimshian dried the eulachon flesh on racks on the fishing camps, the Oowekeeno dried the eulachon stringing them on a pole and the Katzie Salish dried them on poles [26, 30, 44]. The Coast Salish preserved eulachon for winter use by drying them over red alder fire for about two or three days and then sun-drying them until totally dry. They were dried in three different ways: (1) in the first way, they were strung through the gill out the mouth on a hard wood pole and the pole was hung between smoking rack poles; (2) they strung them and leaned the pole on the ground against the smoking rack [41]; (3) they strung them with the pole ends tied together to form a loop, and the loop was placed on a rack to smoke the fish dry.

After the eulachon were sundried, they were stored in bent cornered containers or hung   for later use; the heads were discarded. When they ate the dried fish, they warmed it by toasting it over a fire using an ironwood toasting stick (precontact times) and in later times, a red cedar or Douglas fir toasting stick. The toasting stick was in the shape of a paddle and was spilt through the centre, and the fish were placed tail end in the split and placed over a fire. They dusted off the charcoal from the toasted fish using a small stick, doubled the fish, dipped it in mountain goat, deer or seal fat and consumed it [41]. The Stalo of British Columbia smoke-dried the fish for later use by stringing them on hazelnut or hardhack poles, which they hung on a rack with a bough roof. Alder wood provided the smoke. In good weather, they wind and smoke dried the fish in four or five days [49]. The Northwest Coast Indigenous Peoples ate the flesh smoked: they strung them on cedar or hemlock branches tied to make a loop, and the loop was hung in a smoke house. They also smoked them by threading them on hazel or hardhack poles through the gill and mouth and dangling the poles on a drying rack which had a bough roof. In good weather, the wind and alder wood smoke cured the fish. They also smoked them by threading them through the gill and mouth on a pole and leaning the pole against a wall in the smoke house. They also pulled one fish through the mouth and gill of another fish thus forming pairs of fish along the stick, and drying and smoking them [5].

The Tlingit ate the flesh fresh and dried it for winter consumption, only drying a small amount (i.e. only the surplus, since making oil from its flesh was more important to them). They ate the freshly caught eulachon roasted, putting them on spits which they positioned over a fire to roast [8]. The South Kwakiutl and Nuxalk smoked the flesh for winter consumption: they cleaned the fish, cut it in slivers, air dried it for one day and subsequently smoked it for two weeks, then stored the finished product in baskets. Male eulachon kept a year or two when well-stored, but females did not preserve as long because of the roe [24].

Importantly, the fresh eulachon flesh was used to render eulachon oil or “grease”. This was important to Tlingit, Tsimshian including the Coast Tsimshian, Nuxalk including the Nuxalk of Bella Coola, Coast Salish, Kwakiutl, Tlawitis, the Indigenous Peoples of Nass River, Kitimaat, Kingcome Inlet and Knights Inlet, Native Americans of Southern Alaska, Eyak, Gitksan, Bella Coola, Haida, Nishga [5, 7, 8, 10, 14, 16, 21-24, 30, 32, 35, 36, 40, 46, 47, 51-53, 55-58, 60, 62, 64-67].

The flesh was usually ripened in bulk in huge bins or in pits. After this, the flesh was cooked using hot stones in cleaned-out canoes, bins with metal bottom, or kettles full of water and the surfacing oil was skimmed. The eulachon residue was wrung to get the remainder of the oil and the oil was subsequently stored [5, 7, 8, 10, 14, 21-24, 30, 32, 35, 36, 40, 46, 47, 51-53, 55-58, 60, 62, 64-67].

The flesh was ripened in huge bins to mature the flavour, allow decomposition which facilitated fat release during the cooking of the fish to make oil, and to maximize the amount of oil extracted [22, 51]. These bins were fondly referred to as “stink boxes” due to the strong smell emanating from the putrefying eulachon flesh [14]. According to Tlingit elders, the oil was better if the fish was putrefied a bit first and the more rancid the oil, the more treasured the oil was [8, 10].

Eulachon oil manufacture was typically a family or community affair [5, 14, 64].  Nuxalk of Bella Coola men caught the fish and when they reached shore, they placed them in big fish bins to ripen. An average bin held 6300 kg of eulachon. The bins were boxes made from cedar planks and the floor was lined with cedar boughs to allow drainage. When the box was full, it was covered and the fish allowed to ripen. This ripening process took from 4-14 days, depending on the weather. Each family had their distinct way of determining when the fish had ripened, by smell or texture. In the past, some people used only the fattier, female fish to render grease. In later times, both male and female fish were used. While the oil was cooking, the entire family stayed the day or the weekend at the riverbank, while the women supervised the cooking of the grease. They placed the ripened fish in boiling water in a metal-bottomed bin on supports on an open fire, and let it simmer slowly in order to prevent boiling and frothing. Simmering allowed the oil to rise to the surface. When cooking was finished, extra water was added to the bin to form a clear water/oil interface. They skimmed the oil into metal pots and the residue was discharged to the river through a trough from the cooking bin or collected for use as garden fertilizer. The oil was then reheated to the frothing level so that particles could be removed. This was done in various ways: some families added hot stones to the pot to reheat the oil so that they would get a relished “hot rock flavor”. Others reheated the oil gradually on a small kerosene stove. Others reheated the oil twice or thrice on a small stove to make sure the oil was “safe” and would not become “strong tasting” during storage. When the cooking was complete, they placed the oil in gallon jugs and stored it a cool region in the house. In recent years few families stored grease in a freezer to prevent the flavor from becoming “strong” [14].

In other areas the oil was skimmed using a large clamshell or ladled in small wood boxes with lids for storage. The canoe carrying the caught fish could also serve as a rendering vessel. They partly immersed the canoe in sand or ground to stabilize it, secured it with stakes and cord, and rendered the oil using hot stones. A cedar bark strip was used to move the oil to the bow of the canoe, where it was ladled into a large box. The residue was put in pliable baskets made of woven spruce root on a grid over a wood box, and the remaining oil was extracted with a “leve” (a lever on a flat stone wrung the contents of the basket) or by stamping on the baskets in the canoe. Extra boiling rendered the last of the oil [5, 64].

The Tlingit dug oblong pits near the water on the shore and placed eulachon in the pits to ripen for ten to fourteen days [7, 8]. They placed the ripened fish in a canoe with water and hot rocks to boil [67]. The canoe would be an old canoe which had been cleaned and half immersed in sand with stakes and cord [7, 8]. The eulachon was boiled for many hours in the canoe and cedar bark scoop was used to move the oil on the surface to the bow of the canoe, where it was then ladled into a hug square box. The oil was purified by allowing it to stand and cool some time and then it was skimmed using horn spoons and stored in seal bladders [7, 10]. The fish residue remaining in the canoe was stamped on with bare feet and further boiled with hot stones to extract more oil. The fish residue remaining in the canoe was also put in pliable baskets made of woven spruce root and the baskets were stamped on in the canoe to extract more oil, or the baskets were placed on a grid over a wood box, and the remaining oil was extracted with a “leve” (a lever on a flat stone wrung the contents of the basket) [7]. The residue was also wrung in long openwork twined bags usually by women who sat on them [67].

Some cultures in British Columbia strained this oil and stored it in bent-wood boxes or containers made of bull kelp, salmon skins, or the stomachs of seals or sea lions [30, 35, 62]. The Coast Tsimshian ripened eulachon in baskets. They put the ripened fish in a big square wooden box, added water and added hot stones using wood tongs and stirred the mixture. When the mixture was cooked, it was allowed to cool, and the oil was skimmed. A second batch was prepared the same way, and third batch was prepared by adding liquid from the first batch, instead of fresh water. The refuse was placed in a willow basket and an elder woman placed the basket on top of a wood grate overlying a wood box. She placed her bare chest on the refuse, pressing with all her weight. Males were never allowed to do this. The remains of the basket were thrown near the house, but the water, which was squeezed into the wood box, was used instead of fresh water to make the other batches of grease. “The filth contracted by those engaged in the work” was not washed off until all the fish were boiled, which took around two or three weeks. All these customs had to be observed or they believed the fish would be ashamed, and possibly never return [32].

The Kwakiutl of British Columbia placed ripened eulachon in wooden boxes, which were partially filled with water boiled using hot stones. The fish were stirred with a stick until the oil surfaced, at which point, it was skimmed using clam shells and placed in a storage container made of wood or seal stomach [51, 52]. The Kwakiutl also kept the eulachon oil in dried kelp bottles [23, 24, 47].

Tlawitis men took the eulachon to the ripening pits and the ripened fish was boiled to extract the oil. In the old days, they used hot rocks taken using cedar tongs connected to a cedar fibre rope to boil the water. In latter times, they boiled the ripened fish in a galvanized tub over a fire [53]. The Native Americans of Southern Alaska and Indigenous Peoples of Northern British Columbia boiled the ripened fish in a wood dish or watertight basket using hot stones added to water, and the oil that rose to the surface was skimmed. The refuse was wrung in mats and the oil was stored in boxes, and at times in tanned hollowed giant kelp stalk containers [56]. The Nuxalk ripened the eulachon in a big bin for ten days, placed the ripened fish in a wooden vat full of boiling water, which had been boiled using hot stones and boiled it for two hours, after which, they mashed it and placed it in water, keeping the water hot using hot stones for another two hours. They skimmed the resulting oil from the top using a wood pan, cooked this oil again in boiling water, and scooped off the leaves and fish residue to obtain clean oil [65]. The Haida made eulachon oil by boiling the fish in a wood container and skimming the oil from the top, or squeezing the oil from the refuse. The oil was squeezed from the refuse by wrapping the refuse in mats, the arms and breasts of women hugging the mats serving to squeeze out the oil. The oil was placed in the hollowed-stalks of seaweed [60].

After rendering the eulachon, it formed a thick, creamy oil or “grease” which some people called “Nass grease” [29]. Eulachon oil is a strong-smelling, golden, thick oil which has the “consistency of soft butter”, the texture and appearance of goose grease, and the appearance and consistency of a good vegetable oil [7, 8, 14, 58]. It is considered high quality oil and thought that if properly processed and bottled it should last several years at room temperature [14, 29]. Among the South Kwakiutl and Nuxalk, oil makers were held in high regard because the flavor, color and clarity of the oil depended on how it was cooked and stored [24]. The Niska of the Nass were renowned for their eulachon oil as making it was their specialty [58].

Many cultures treasured the oil [32, 36, 51, 67]. The Tlingit, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, Kitimat Haisla, Gitksan and Coast Salish and the Nuxalk considered eulachon oil their major food fat source and also a luxury [14]. The First Nations of the Nass River, Kitimaat, Nuxalk Kingcome Inlet and Knights Inlet considered eulachon oil their most popular food fat [22]. Eulachon oil was the Gitksan’s most important grease and was the number one grease of Gitksan nobility” [8, 55, 58]. The oil was valuable because it did not spoil and could be stored one to two years which was important because excellent eulachon runs did not occur each year [1]. The Indigenous Peoples of Coastal British Columbia ate many plant foods with eulachon oil, but those of the West Coast of Vancouver Island tended to use whale and seal oil rather than eulachon oil since eulachon oil was only rarely available through trade [62]. Some cultures of central British Columbia did not use eulachon oil as a major source of oil, and the Stalo did not use or make it, though they ate the flesh [45, 49]. Some inland cultures of British Columbia used eulachon oil as a supplement for deer tallow [34].

The oil was eaten, used as butter, as a flavor enhancer and used to dip several foods including dried or smoked salmon, dried or smoked halibut, other dried fish, potatoes, raw or cooked edible roots and green vegetables, boiled herring roe, dried herring roe, smoked and fresh cooked fish, salmon roe, bannock, homemade bread, spring greens such as salmon berry shoots, thimbleberry and cow parsnip, dried meat, smoked shellfish, boiled crab apples, rhubarb shoots; tree bark including the outer bark of maple, alder and hemlock; seaweed including dried seaweed and boiled seaweed, berries and wild berries [4, 7, 8, 10, 11, 14, 21, 22, 24, 29, 35-38, 40, 43, 46-48, 53, 56, 58, 64, 65]. It was also used to prepare salads, stews, bread, boiled fish and to fry things e.g. to fry bread in making bannock [14, 15, 22, 29]. When used as a condiment, the oil was typically placed in a small bowl or dish in the middle of a group of consumers and they dipped morsels of hot or cold food in it [11, 58]. Apart from using the oil as a dip, The Tlingit mixed chopped dried seaweed in it and ate it [10, 11]. Oil could be mixed with equal parts of water [8]. The Coast Salish ate the outer bark of maple, alder and hemlock with eulachon oil, as the bark was constipating, and prepared a special treat for the children by whipping soapberries with water into a foamy consistency using hardwood paddles, and adding eulachon oil to the mixture to improve the flavor [35, 38].

Eulachon oil has antioxidant and pest defense properties, so it was used to preserve food including fruits, crab apples, berries, wild berries, roots and herbs [5, 7, 10, 14, 18, 21, 22, 50, 55, 62, 64]. Inuit mixed cooked berries, crab apples and cranberries with the oil to preserve them for winter consumption [64]. The British Columbia Indigenous Peoples, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, Kitimat Haisla, Gitksan and Coast Salish poured it on dried cakes of berries or fruits (e.g. Pacific crabapples and cranberries) stored in boxes of water, to preserve the products [14, 62]. The Northwest Coast Peoples preserved berries for winter use by stirring them in year-old eulachon oil and cold water [4, 5]. The Nuxalk lightly cooked wild crabapples in water and topped them with eulachon oil to preserve them, and they smoked or sun-dried berries, topped them with eulachon oil and stored them in boxes to preserve them [18]. The Kwakiutl put wild berries in closed containers of eulachon oil to preserve the fruit [50].

Uses other than food

Eulachon oil was also used medicinally and artistically [14, 21, 22, 24, 48, 53, 65]. The cultures of Nass River, Kitimaat, Nuxalk, Kingcome Inlet and Knights Inlet, Tlingit, Eyak, Tsimshian, Haida and Salish used it to treat skin rashes and internal diseases, tuberculosis, the flu and intestinal disorders [21, 22]. The Kwakiutl believed that including it as a regular part of their diet ensured good health and if someone got sick, the person consumed extra oil as a tonic and rubbed some on his chest or back. They also believed the oil “made good stomachs” [48]. The Nuxalk used eulachon oil to make red paint by mixing eulachon oil, ground red rock powder, mashed Chinook eggs and urine [65].

Beliefs and taboos

Eulachon oil was important culturally. The Tlingit, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, Kitimat Haisla, Gitksan and Coast Salish, and Nuxalk used it as a major food and gift during potlatch ceremonies and feasts, and the First Nations of Nass River, Kitimaat, Nuxalk, Kingcome Inlet and Knights Inlet used the eulachon oil as a gift [14, 22, 62]. South Kwakiutl and Nuxalk hosts of potlatches gave away huge quantities of eulachon oil and the Tlingit drank the oil in enormous quantities at feasts [10, 24]. The Northwest Coast Indigenous Peoples prized the oil highly and used it on food, and the more the oil they ladled on to food served to a guest, the greater the honor to the guest. They ate fresh berries with it and considered it a sign of poverty to consume berries without the oil [5]. The Nuxalk and Kwakiutl considered it a mark of poverty if a family did not have eulachon oil [14]. Among the Indigenous Peoples of Nass River, Kitimaat, Nuxalk, Kingcome Inlet and Knights Inlet, Tlingit, Eyak, Tsimshian, Haida and Salish, each family shared the eulachon oil that they had made with extended family members, community members or others [21].

Eulachon fish themselves played an important role in the cultural activities of various cultures. Among the Coast Tsimshian, the man who caught the first eulachon gave it to his eldest brother’s first child, and the child gave gifts to the man in exchange [30]. Various cultures in the Coast of British Columbia had rituals for the first eulachon caught. The chief of an important clan among the Kwakiutl inherited the right to plunge the net in the river to catch the first eulachon and at one part of the intricate ceremony that this entailed, he addressed the eulachon saying “ Welcome, friends, you have come to bring wealth to me and my tribe. Welcome, Oil Women, therefore you come that we may eat”. The Tsimshian followed a precise procedure when cooking the first eulachon and the man performing this ritual wore a specific costume, which included his traveling cap and mittens. After he had cooked the fish, it was obligatory to burn part of the fish before the feast started, as the people prayed: “Here, Chief, here is for you to eat, part of our food; now, Chief, feed us.” [34]. The Nuxalk observed intricate rites for the first eulachon run [42].

In regions of Coastal British Columbia where there were no eulachon, the people obtained them through trade, usually in the form of eulachon oil [62]. Eulachon oil was so highly prized by many cultures that the Northwest Coast cultures traded it long distances eastward to cultures in the interior along so-called “grease trails”. There are several ancient trade routes to the coast called “grease trails” and the great explorer Alexander Mackenzie made his famous journey to the Pacific ocean following one such “grease trail” [5]. The First Nations of the Northwest Coast traveled the grease trail into the interior to trade the oil with the Athapaskan-speaking tribes and they traded the oil by canoes to the south and north [1]. The Gitksan Tsimshian, who had a winter village on a grease trail to the Nass, traded soapberries, dried fish, meat and tanned hides to the Niska of the Nass for eulachon [30, 58]. In latter times, at least since the 1980s, the Gitksan drove to the Nass to obtain fresh and smoked eulachon and eulachon oil [58]. The Haida, Tlingit and Nootka on Vancouver Island did not have eulachon rivers and they also had no rights to fish them so they traveled long distances to trade for eulachon oil with those who had excess [5]. Coast Indians from Alaska and from the south canoed to the Nass to catch eulachon or barter for the eulachon oil [64]. The Northwest Coast cultures had eulachon fishing rights, so the Haida and Tlingit congregated at the lower Nass River in order to buy eulachon oil [4, 5]. Haida and Tlingit fishermen and traders met the Tsimshian at the mouth of the Nass River, where the Tsimshian caught eulachon [31]. The Tlingit usually got the eulachon oil from the Nass River by trade from the Niska Tsimshian rather than making it locally since eulachon runs were not dominant in their region (southeastern Alaska) [8]. Tribes not resident to the Nass River (i.e. non-Nishga) bartered with the Nishga Tsimshian and their Tsimshian tribesmen for the extracted oil [64]. Eulachon were a chief export for the Haisla as they caught an abundance of them [13]. The Southwestern Coast Salish dried eulachon and this dried eulachon was a very valuable trade item [46]. The Chinookans of Lower Columbia traded smoked eulachon upriver [28].

The Peoples of Kitimaat, Nuxalk, Kingcome Inlet and Knights Inlet used the oil as a trade item [22]. They traded the grease with neighbouring cultures which did not have access to eulachon [21]. The Bella Coola used the eulachon and the eulachon oil as trade items, thus it was highly valued, second only to salmon [42]. They traded eulachon oil and smoked eulachon to the Bella Bella and Chilcotin along the Grease Trail [65]. The Bella Bella traded clams, seaweed and herring spawn with the Bella Coola, Oowekeeno and Kitamaat for eulachon and eulachon oil [26]. The Quileute traded camas and sea mammal blubber for eulachon oil from the north from the Nootka [27]. The South Kwakiutl and Nuxalk both had access to the Bella Coola and Knight Inlet, and other good eulachon fishing sites, so they traded and sold the oil [24]. The Comox and Pentlach Coast Salish used eulachon oil, but they had to get it by trade with cultures to the north [35]. The Interior Salish had seasonal gatherings at the Fraser River mouth to trade for eulachon oil, dried salmon and fresh fish with the Peoples of the British Columbian coast [34].


1.         Goddard PE. In: Indians of the Northwest Coast. edn. New York: American Museum of Natural History; 1924.

2.         Olsen SL: Animals in American Indian Life: An Overview. In: Stars Above, Earth Below American Indians and Nature. edn. Edited by Bol MC. Dublin: Roberts Rinehart Publishers; 1998: 95-118.

3.         Newcomb WW: North American Indians: An Anthropological Perspective. Pacific Palisades, California: Goodyear Publishing Company, Inc.; 1974.

4.         Drucker P: Indians of the Northwest Coast. New York: The natural History Press; 1955.

5.         Stewart H: Cooking and Preserving Fish. In: Indian Fishing. edn. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.; 1977.

6.         Petitot E: Les Grands Esquimaux. In: Les Grands Esquimaux. edn. Paris: E. plon, Nourrit et Cie; 1887.

7.         Krause A: The Tlingit Indians: Results of a Trip to the Northwest Coast of America and the Bering Straits. Seattle: University of Washington Press; 1956.

8.         Emmons GT: Food and Its preparation. In: The Tlingit Indians. edn. Edited by de Laguna F. New York: American Museum of Natural History; 1991: 140-153.

9.         de Laguna F: Eyak. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles W. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1990: 189-191.

10.       Oberg K: The Annual Cycle of Production. In: The Social Economy of the Tlingit Indians. edn.: University of Washington Press; 1973: 65.

11.       Oberg K: The Social Economy of the Tlingit Indians. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press; 1973.

12.       Wein EE, Freeman MMR: Frequency of Traditional Food Use by Three Yukon First Nations Living in Four Communities. Arctic 1995, Vol. 48, No. 2:161-171.

13.       Hamori-Torok C: Haisla. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles WP. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1990: 306-308.

14.       Kuhnlein HV, Chan AC, Thompson JN, Nakai S: Ooligan Grease: A Nutritious Fat Used by Native People of Coastal British Colombia. Journal of Ethnobiology 1982, 2(2):154-161.

15.       Kuhnlein HV: The Nuxalk Food and Nutrition Program Overview and Objectives. Nutrition Newsletter 1986, 7:26-34.

16.       Kuhnlein HV, Moody SA: Evaluation of the Nuxalk Food and Nutrition Program: Traditional Food Use by a Native Indian Group in Canada. Journal of Nutrition Education 1989, 21(3):127-132.

17.       The Nuxalk Food and Nutrition Program Staff: Nuxalk Food and Nutrition Handbook - A Practical Guide to Family Foods and Nutrition Using Native Foods; 1984.

18.       Kuhnlein HV: Traditional and Contemporary Nuxalk Foods. Nutrition Research 1984, 4:789-809.

19.       Kuhnlein HV: Factors Influencing Use of Traditional Foods Among the Nuxalk People. Journal of the Canadian Dietetic Association 1989, 50(2):102-106.

20.       Kuhnlein HV: The Nuxalk Food and Nutrition Program: Overview and Objectives. Nutrition Newsletter 1985, March:1-9.

21.       Kuhnlein HV, Chan HM: Ooligan grease: A traditional food fat of western Canada and Alaska. In., vol. 96; 1998: 211-214.

22.       Kuhnlein HV, Yeboah F, Sedgemore M, Sedgemore S, Chan HM: Nutritional qualities of ooligan grease: a traditional food fat of British Columbia First Nations. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis 1996, 9:18-31.

23.       Hillard L, Hans R: The Nuxalk Food and Nutrition Program: Community Participation in Program activities. Nutrition Newsletter 1985, March:1-7.

24.       Kirk R: Daily Life. In: Wisdom of the Elders: Native Traditions on the Northwest Coast- The Nuu-chah-nulth, Southern Kwakiutl and Nuxalk. edn. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre in association with The British Columbia Provincial Museum; 1986: 105-138.

25.       Hobler PM: Prehistory of the Central Coast of British Columbia. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles WP. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1990: 298-299.

26.       Hilton SF: Haihais, Bella Bella, and Oowekeeno. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles W. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1990: 312-316.

27.       Powell JV: Quileute. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles W. Washington: Smithsonian Institution; 1990: 431-432.

28.       Silverstein M: Chinookans of the Lower Columbia. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles W. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1990: 533-536.

29.       Jacobs M, Jr., Jacobs M, Sr.: Southeast Alaska Native Foods. In: Raveu's Bones. edn. Edited by Hope A; 1982: 112-130.

30.       Halpin MM, Seguin M: Tsimshian Peoples: Southern Tsimshian, Coast Tsimshian, Nishga, and Gitksan. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles W. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1990: 267-271.

31.       Garfield VE, Wingert PS: The Tsimshian Indians and their Arts. Seattle: University of Washington Press; 1966.

32.       Stewart FL: The Seasonal Availability of Fish Species Used by the Coast Tsimshians of Northern British Columbia. Syesis 1975, 8:375-388.

33.       Suttles W: Coping with abundance: subsistence on the Northwest Coast. In: Man the hunter. edn. Edited by Lee RB, DeVore I. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company; 1968: 56-68.

34.       Ravenhill A: Chief Sources of Food Supply. In: The native tribes of British Columbia. edn. Victoria: King's Printer; 1938: 71-77.

35.       Barnett HG: Food; Occupations. In: The Coast Salish of British Columbia. Volume 1st edition, edn. Eugene: University of Oregon; 1955: 59-107.

36.       Government of British Columbia: Vol 1: Introduction to our Native Peoples. Victoria: British Columbia Department of Education; 1966.

37.       Government of British Columbia: British Columbia Heritage Series: Our Native Peoples. Victoria: British Columbia Department of Education; 1952.

38.       Batdorf C: Northwest Native Harvest. Surrey, B.C: Hancock House Publishers Ltd.; 1990.

39.       Hill-Tout C: Food and Cooking. In: British North America: The Far West, the Home of the Salish and Dene. edn. Edited by Hill-Tout C. London: Archibald Constable; 1907: 89-108.

40.       Rivera T: Diet of a Food-Gathering People, with Chemical Analysis of Salmon and Saskatoons. In: Indians of the Urban Northwest. edn. Edited by Smith MW. New York: Columbia University Press; 1949.

41.       Bouchard R, Kennedy DID: Utilization of fishes, beach foods, and marine mammals by the Tl'uhus Indian People of British Columbia. In.: British Columbia Indian Language Project; 1974.

42.       Kennedy DID, Bouchard RT: Bella Coola. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles W. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1990: 323-325.

43.       Suttles W: Coast Salish Essays, vol. 1st edition. Seattle: University of Washingtion Press; 1987.

44.       Suttles W: Katzie Ethnographic Notes. In: Katzie Ethnographic Notes. edn. Edited by Duff W. Victoria: British Columbia Provincial Museum; 1955.

45.       Suttles W: Central Coast Salish. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles W. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1990: 453-460.

46.       Hajda Y: Southwestern Coast Salish. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles W. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1990: 503-507.

47.       Boas F: Kwakiutl Ethnography. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; 1966.

48.       Wolcott HF: A Kwakiutl Village and School. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston; 1967.

49.       Duff W: The Upper Stalo Indians of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia. Victoria,B.C.: British Columbia Provincial Museum; 1952.

50.       Rohner RP, Rohner EC: The Kwakiutl: Indians of British Columbia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston; 1970.

51.       Government of British Columbia: Vol 7: Kwakiutl. Victoria: British Columbia Department of Education; 1966.

52.       Boas F: Kwakiutl Culture as Reflected in Mythology. New York: G.E. Stechert & Co.; 1935.

53.       Sedgemore M: Oolichan Grease: The Preparation, Chemical Analysis, Nutritive Values and Uses. In.; 1991.

54.       Port Simpson Curriculum Committee: Port Simpson Foods: A Curriculum Development Project. In. Prince Rupert: The People of Port Simpson and School District No. 52; 1983.

55.       Drucker P: Cultures of the North Pacific Coast. Scranton, Pennsylvania: Chandler Publishing Company; 1965.

56.       Niblack AP: Food; Implements and Weapons; Hunting and Fishing. In: The Coast Indians of Southern Alaska and Northern British Columbia: based on the collections in the US National Museum and on the personal observation of the writer in connection with the survey of Alaska in the seasons of 1885, 1886 and 1887. edn.: [S.l. : s.n., 19--?]; 1899.

57.       Birket-Smith K, DeLaguna F. In: The Eyak Indians of the Copper River Delta, Alaska. edn. Kobenhavn: Levin & Munksgaard; 1938.

58.       The People of 'Ksan: Gathering What the Great Nature Provided. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, Ltd.; 1980.

59.       Wein EE: The Traditional Food Supply of Native Canadians. Canadian Home Economics Journal 1994, 44(2):74-77.

60.       Bancroft HH: The Native Races of the Pacific States of North America. New York: D. Appleton; 1875.

61.       Eidlitz K: Food and Emergency Food in the Circumpolar Area. In.; 1969.

62.       Stephenson PH, Elliot SJ, Foster LT, Harris J: A persistent spirit: towards understanding Aboriginal health in British Columbia. In. Edited by Stephenson PH, Elliot SJ, Foster LT, Harris J, vol. 1. Victoria: Department of Geography, University of Victoria; 1995.

63.       Lopatin IA: Social Life and Religion of the Indians in Kitimat, British Columbia, vol. The University of Southern California: Social Science Series (number 26). Los Angeles: The University of Southern California Press; 1945.

64.       Lillard C: The Nass Fishery. In: In the Wake of the War Canoe. edn. Victoria, B.C: Sono Nis Press; 1981: 38-44.

65.       Thommesen H: Telling Time With Shadows: The Old Indian Ways. In: Bella Coola Man: More Stories of Clayton Mack. edn. Edited by Thommasen H. Madeira Park, B.C: Harbour Publishing; 1994: 24-45.

66.       Tepper LH, Smith HI, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Canadian Ethnology Service: The Bella Coola Valley: Harlan I. Smith's Fieldwork Photographs, 1920-1924. In. Edited by Tepper LH. Hull: Canadian Musem of Civilization; 1991: 80-91.

67.       de Laguna F: Tlingit. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles W. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1990: 203-212.

The eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus), also called candle fish because of its very high oil content, is a small, slender, and silvery schooling fish. Unlike other closely related freshwater smelt species, eulachon are searun smelts and spend almost their entire life at sea, only entering freshwater to spawn. They are found along the Pacific coast from southern Alaska to northern California, but regular spawning runs might only occur in less than 100 rivers, with three distinct Canadian population units that have all undergone drastic decline in numbers. The Nass/Skeena Rivers population is considered threatened, while the Central Pacific Coast and the Fraser River populations are listed as endangered.

The eulachon rarely grows above 20 cm long and goes unnoticed for most of its searun life. They can easily be confounded with small Pacific salmon with their adipose fin (small fleshy fin located between the dorsal fin and the tail) and their long anal fin, but have distinguishing concentric lines on their gill covers. Their common name is spelled and pronounced in different ways, often as “hooligan” in Alaska and parts of British Columbia.

Eulachon spawn only in coastal rivers with intense spring runoffs from melting snowpacks or glaciers on coastal mountain ranges and do not venture far upstream. Spawning runs occur during the winter in southern parts of their range, as early as January like in the Columbia River, while in more northern rivers like in Alaska, some spawning occurs well into the month of June. Once hatched, eulachon larvae drift downstream towards the sea and young fish will spend the next 3 years along the bottom of open marine waters at moderate depths (50-200 m) before migrating up freshwater rivers to spawn and die soon after. They are particulate feeders and their diet is based on small marine invertebrates.

Eulachon have an extremely high fat content, around 20%, the highest of all marine fishes with as much as 5 times more than in same-sized fish. In the 1800s, First Nations fisheries harvested thousands of tons of this fish, but in recent years, eulachon spawning runs have reached an historical low with some populations having decreased by 98% in the last 10-years and others being almost extirpated from some rivers. During eulachon spawning runs, many fish (hakes, sturgeons), bird (eagles, gulls), and mammal (seals, sea lions) predators benefit from this rich source of food at times when other foods are low. However, predation cannot be the factor causing the widespread decline in eulachon numbers, which most likely occurs while eulachon develop at sea.


COSEWIC: COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Eulachon, Nass / Skeena Rivers populations, Central Pacific Coast population and the Fraser River population Thaleichthys pacificus in Canada. In. Ottawa: Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada; 2011: 88.


Images provided below were obtained from: Encyclopedia of Life. Available from
© Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Division of Fishes
Supplier: National Museum of Natural History Collections
This map is based on occurrence records available through the GBIF network