Thursday, March 18, 2010

REDUX III - Where have All the Ooli-gone?

Alas this reduxed article remains as timely now as many springs ago when it was written. The Bella Coola River where once this many-named oiliest of smelt abounded in early spring, is unlikely to see much more than stragglers for the 12th straight year. What is even more irksome, is that after such a long time with the Nuxalk (Bella Coola) Natives and others pressing for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to do something about this ecological disaster, the grapevine just yesterday brought forth news that the Fraser River eulachon (with that geographic specificity) is being considered under Canada's Species at Risk procedures. This perpetuates DFO's ignoring and ignorance of the far greater and more recent cultural significance of the eulachon in remoter northern areas than in the churning grey sewage pit known as the Fraser River estuary! This is an indigenous treasure and with all due respect, the Fraser First Nations have not exactly made diminished eulachon the high priority as have their more northern coastal brothers and sisters.

But as with the Olympic transfusions of public dollars from poorer regions to the richest, apparently, it is still the Lower mainland that will always get the goods.

So without further ado... an old but still relevant Grouse from the past(April, 2002):


Where have all the ooli-gone?

[Warning: A not very funny Grouse column lies ahead -- and I heard you wags saying "so what's new?"]

For the fourth consecutive year that wee fish of legendary greasiness, Thaleichthys pacificus has failed to return in any worthwhile numbers to the Bella Coola River. Indeed, field surveys turned up less than a dozen as well as a puzzling small flux of eggs drifting seaward.

Lest I infringe upon the customary terrain of my journalistic neighbour Mr. Trischler,(a fisheries biologist who also had a column in the Coast Mountain News at the time of writing) I shall not linger long on the bio-ecology behind this. Which is easy because the level of scientific knowledge about oolichan is nothing less than an embarrassment for a country with Canada's reputation in fisheries biology. Our aquatic scientists have done ten times more research on sticklebacks! And on "really valuable" species -- i.e. ones whose primary significance is "making real money" -- well they seem to get at least one trained ichthyologist per spawner!

Au contraire for the fish of many spellings (ooligan, ullachun, eulachon, olachen, hoolican. etc). Venerated as it may be by First Nations it has been subject to a perilous neglect, scientifically and managerially, whose consequences are now dreadfully manifest. Through the years of this very real crisis, and in the absence of any long or deep baseline information, little more could be done than to wring hands and mutter about the effects of El Nino.

Alas one thing we do know is that the vast majority of these smelt cousins live only three years. It takes neither a biologist nor mathematician to deduce that if it's been four since they graced the Bella Coola in any significant numbers, they are as Monty Python, said of the infamous dead parrot, "history, kaput, finis, ceased to be, gone to meet their maker, bereft of life, and joined to the choir invisible." An ex-oolichan run.

And the response beyond Bella Coola - other than one or two scientists running about here and there looking for traces and some belated "Species at Risk" funding, Canadian society has been a shrug or less. Leaving aside the bio-disaster of all this, I want to speak of the cultural tragedy but that is not mine to tell. It is the Nuxalk's. They are the ones who could explain, if asked, what it means to have your larder and medicine chest stripped of this live-giver, to no longer be able to show your kid how to make grease or trade the stuff for goods and good will with neighbouring oolichan-less peoples. And to see irrevocably shattered this primeval bond between generations alive and departed.

I can only recount two little stories to convey in miniature what has been lost. Both are from the one and only oolichan-spring I've lived through since coming to Bella Coola nigh five years back. We'd moved into Ivan Tallio's home on the river in October 1997 and were delighted to realize how close at hand were the shacks and stinkboxes the Nuxalk used to make oolichan grease. Years before I had worked with a Da’naxda’xw hereditary chief whose territory was at the mouth of the Kleena Kleene on Knight's Inlet. I had been invited but not had the two weeks to spare for the journey to his remote camp of cultural immersion in someone else's rites of spring.

Now, here in Bella Coola, I had literally a front row seat in my La-Z-Boy as thorough my picture window I could see the natural and human rhythm of the oolichan's return. Come the last full moon in March the aerial reveries of gulls and eagles foretold the wondrous event. Soon, River Road was humming. In the thick of it all was a man who I'd seen do little else all winter but wander about picking up recyclable cans, now miraculously transformed into a master of an ancient ceremony.

When he and I had casually chatted only weeks before, I'd taken him to be no taller than I. But now he swaggered about like the architect of a rising skyscraper, five-six and going on seven feet. Here was someone no longer in need of $1,500 healing trips to "Choices" or an HRDC-sponsored Life-skills course to know his place in life's big picture.

And where is he now that there is no run of oolichan? I see him some early mornings despondently checking out the trashcans near empty picnic benches from which no one even bothers to watch the river for the old miracle.

And also from that spring, I recall a knock at the door and Howard Walkus inviting me over to scoop whatever I needed of still live oolichans from a big cold washtub in his backyard. And his grandsons, Lorne and Jordan knocking on my door night after night and gifting me with their own small boys' catch of life-bringers until my then pregnant wife said "please no more fried oolichans this week!"

But these are a white man's bitsy tales from a much larger tragic story that has befallen our Nuxalk neighbours. I have worked in the past two years with the Nuxalk Fisheries Program as they raise research funds and sample of the hand numbing waters of the Bella Coola. But it is lonely out there on the river with no saviour fish. Will they ever return?

The biology is not encouraging and so it is also on a cultural or rather cross-cultural note I end. In Newfoundland when the cod collapsed, provincial and federal governments knew and cared that the very survival of important rural life-ways was in jeopardy. Our society as a whole dug deep in its pockets and transfused several billions of dollars to merely sustain outports. Here in Bella Coola, it is not so clear that money could ever mitigate the manifold losses to the Nuxalk community. But a start must be made somehow.

In the aftermath of those wonderful Bella Coola Town Halls last month where the predominantly non-Nuxalk assembly sang the peace-cry, "Two Cultures, One Community" it is time for something tangible as well as symbolic. Why not a jointly composed "Oolichan Manifesto" that begins with conveying the shared grief and outrage of this socio-economic cultural and ecological catastrophe in a common voice heard all the way to Ottawa?