The Salvation Fish

The Salvation Fish
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The idea that we can have social relationships with other species struck me as strange, maybe even a little loopy, the first time I heard it. It was in a small book with an academic-sounding title—Nature and the Crisis of Modernity, by Raymond A. Rogers. To have a hope of conserving nature, Rogers argued, we needed to conserve “the social basis of the relationship between humans and nature.”

I didn’t get it, really. Then I met Oscar “Ozzy” Robinson, Jr.

Ozzy was a member of a fishing crew called the Dirty Dozen. I met him when photographer Paul Colangelo and I traveled to northern British Columbia, on Canada’s Pacific coast, to fish with the Nisga’a, a people who have lived along the Nass River for millennia.

We were fishing for eulachon, a sea-going smelt that pours up cold-water rivers to spawn just as winter is turning to spring. The little silver-blue fish are so rich in oil that they can be dried and lit like candles, and in British Columbia and Alaska, indigenous nations like the Nisga’a discovered how to ferment that healthful oil into eulachon grease, one of the world’s most locally distinctive (and pungent) foods.

The Dirty Dozen fishing crew puzzled me. On the one hand, they liked their modern conveniences, such as motor boats and Facebook. On the other, they sometimes seemed like men from another time. Easy-to-use, metal-framed seine nets are available, for example, but instead, the Dirty Dozen choose to search the woods for just the right-size trees to hew into poles to anchor their nets in the Nass.

Driving the poles into the river bottom while the water rushes past is dangerous work: someone has to stand on a rickety table on the fishing skiff’s foredeck and pound the posts down with a huge, wooden hammer that looked like a weapon out of The Lord of the Rings. Then, every few days, the river takes or breaks the poles, and they start all over again.

Another oddity: the fishermen earn no money. It’s an important fishery, and in the Nisga’a language, eulachon are sometimes called halimotkw, which translates as “savior fish” or “salvation fish.” In the past, their return to the coastal rivers each spring sometimes saved indigenous peoples on the brink of starvation after a long harsh winter.

Eulachon are popular fresh, smoked, or rendered into grease, but although the fishermen endure freezing temperatures, all-nighters, and constant risks, they fish for subsistence only. People may barter for any fish left over once the crews have provided for their own communities (eulachon caught by the Dirty Dozen fishing crew will eventually spread among 2,000 people), but no money changes hands.

I couldn’t make sense of the contradictions — until I sat down with Ozzy on the shore of Fishery Bay, an oxbow on the Nass River that is lined with Nisga’a grease-making camps. I was a bit scared of him, to be honest. A powerfully built man in his early thirties, Ozzy didn’t talk a lot, and, scowling from beneath his hoodie, looked like someone you didn’t want to mess with. But his voice was quiet and thoughtful.

“I’ve literally been here every year since I was born,” Ozzy told me. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s just something I do. I go out to the river and I catch some fish, and other people, they go to the store and they buy some fish.”

As he described how the fishery worked, I began to see it in a different light. “We’re still fishing the old way,” Ozzy said. But fishers like the Dirty Dozen don’t keep tradition alive for tradition’s sake. They do it because it works: the old ways have kept the eulachon coming back for centuries.

You don’t change the old ways lightly. No one can say, after so much time, exactly why it is still important to seek out anchoring poles in the forest. But doesn’t it seem that all that effort might serve as a reminder of the eulachon’s importance? When the poles break, it delays the fishing — but doesn’t it also leave more fish for the humpback whales, seals, sea lions, eagles, gulls, wolves, and bears that rely on the eulachon?

The way tradition can conserve a fish stock is made clearer by the wooden pen — the “bin” — that each camp builds in order to ferment their eulachon. The size of the bin is not regulated: each year it is just built big enough to hold a share for every fisherman (for the moment, there are no female fishers on Fishery Bay). Once the bin is full, the fishing stops, even if the river is still bursting with fish. It’s an act of restraint, or we might say respect, that helps keep the eulachon run strong.

“We just take what we need,” said Ozzy. “We take enough to cook our eulachons, make grease, and then we take enough to put in our smokehouses. That’s it. We don’t keep fishing just to make money.”

The fishery is always changing with the times, and no two Nisga’a fishers agree on how much of the old ways they should keep, or how many new ways to accept. What matters most is that these questions are taken seriously. They aren’t just matters of efficiency, or “progress” — they are issues of identity and relationship. They raise questions about the mindset that the fishermen bring to the river.

My time in Fishery Bay left me thinking about the traditions that surround my own daily life in a city of two million people. Here, too, I see the tension between old and new, and I see that the tension always matters. But what I notice more than anything is that those patterns no longer involve any other free-living, nonhuman species. Most of us have no truly social relationship with the natural world, which is why it took so long for me to begin to understand what I was seeing on the Nass River.

How important might it be to have those connections with nature? What is lost when they’re broken? The recent history of the eulachon sheds some light on those questions.

Over the past 20 years, eulachon began to disappear, first from the southern parts of their range, like California, and eventually up and down the coast. The problem, scientists have begun to conclude, is rooted in “new ways”: changes made without enough thought, by people without enough connection. The main culprits appear to be the industrial shrimp fishery, which was hammering the eulachon as bycatch at sea, as well as climate change—the ultimate crisis of disconnection from cause and effect.

Most people who live on the west coast of North America didn’t notice the vanishing eulachon. The species might simply have faded into extinction, if it weren’t for the indigenous nations who raised their voices, and now both Canada and the United States are taking eulachon conservation seriously. In fact, there are now some hopeful signs that the eulachon stocks might be bouncing back. If so, it will be an important story about how a fish that used to save indigenous people was saved by them in turn. But there’s more to it than that.

“It’s a reminder that we lose our ear for the feedback loops between nature and culture at our peril.”

It’s a story about a relationship. It’s a reminder that we lose our ear for the feedback loops between nature and culture at our peril. And it’s a whisper that the old ways might have much to teach us about the new ways we need for the future.