What happens when supporting a product’s consumption might do more harm than good?
By Tabitha Steager, Ark of Taste Chair
The selection process for an Ark of Taste product is a complex and well-considered process. It often requires multiple conversations back and forth between those nominating a food product and members of the Ark Commission, as well as plenty of time and effort to make sure that the right products meet the complex criteria set out by the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity and that all national Ark commissions are required to follow. However, all that time and effort doesn’t always lead to a successful nomination. Sometimes, no matter how valuable a food is to Canadian food traditions it should not have a place on the Ark. This was the case recently with a stellar nomination put together by dedicated Slow Food Vancouver member Josie Padro for the eulachon. In fact, the nomination was probably the best researched, most thorough Ark nomination I have seen in the four years I have been working on the Ark, including the many nominations I see from other Ark commissions around the world.
The eulachon is a small silver fish, about 20-25 centimeters long, found in waters from northern California to the southern Bering Sea. They are also known as “candlefish” because they have such a high oil content that a wick stuck down their throat will burn like a candle when lit. These small fish run by the millions up rivers to spawn, where they could be intercepted. Traditionally, many or most eulachon would be processed into a highly nutritious, calorie-dense oil or grease that preserved very well and could also be used to preserve other foods such as berries. As the Ark nomination for the eulachon notes, “the spring arrival of the eulachon fishery signaled an important cultural event in many coastal BC First Nations communities. According to Dayna BellaCoola, of the Nuxalk Nation, the traditional eulachon harvest was a community affair, with tasks divided among all ages. While some would repair nets, others would build the vats that would contain the eulachon, while children were sent to find the rocks that would be heated and added to the eulachon during the rendering process. Each family had its own particular way of making eulachon grease and some elders are said to be able to tell by taste which family the grease came from.
The arrival of the fish remains an important event for First Nations groups today but it is seriously threatened due to declining stocks. In fact, scientific studies estimate that in recent years harvests have dramatically declined, from thousands of tonnes to as little as fifty tonnes per year in some areas. While the exact reasons for the decline, in some cases total disappearance, of the yearly eulachon run aren’t completely known, there is strong evidence to suggest that commercial shrimp trawl fishery results in a huge by-catch of eulachons. In addition, landslides due to erosion from over-logging have effectively blocked streambeds used to travel to spawning grounds by both eulachon and salmon. The fishery is endangered enough that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Integrated Fisheries Management Plan announced that commercial and recreational eulachon fisheries will not open in 2011-2012. In the United States the Columbia River eulachon fishery has been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
With such a danger to the eulachon and its very important place in Canadian food culture, it seems like a natural product for the Ark. However, the Ark exists to promote the consumption of endangered food products in order to save them from extinction. When increased consumption of that product, however, could help contribute to its extinction we have to unfortunately decide not to include a product on the Ark. The International Commission has had discussions recently about creating a new Ark category for extremely endangered foods, one that would promote awareness of a food and encourage its protection until such time as there might be enough available to start encouraging people to eat it. However, we don’t yet have a category like that. What we can do as Slow Food members, and hopefully through efforts supported by the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, is to promote the eulachon as a fish worth saving. This could include educational efforts by Slow Food convivia and perhaps a national campaign to bring to light the multiple threats to not only the eulachon but also other wild fish from factors such as climate change; reduced water flows from damning, development, and logging along spawning runs; commercial fishery by-catch; and more. The eulachon is a valuable part of Canadian food culture and should be saved, hopefully someday in numbers sustainable enough to make it appropriate for the Ark of Taste.