Oolichan: A Keystone Species

It’s that time of year when the Skeena River is bustling with the stunning Oolichan run.

Our communities look forward to this influx of birds along the Skeena every year, but did you know that the oolichan, or eulachon, or saak, is a small but essential fish species inhabiting the Pacific Northwest region?

It is highly regarded for its cultural and economic value to Indigenous communities and plays a critical role in the ecosystem. During the spring, the oolichan migrates from the ocean to freshwater tributaries for spawning. This cyclical event peaks in March and represents a cornerstone of life in the region. The oolichan’s life cycle mirrors the salmon, migrating to freshwater environments to spawn.


During their spawning runs, the oolichan significantly impacts ocean and river ecosystems by serving as a vital food source for various animals, including birds and sea lions. This effect is similar to the ecological role of salmon, which contributes nutrients to marine and terrestrial ecosystems, supporting a broad life network. Similarly, the presence and health of the oolichan and salmon runs indicate the overall well-being of their habitats, reflecting the intricate connections within these ecosystems.


Salvation Fish

The oolichan is known as the “salvation fish” because it provides the first abundant food source after the winter scarcity. Its rich nutritional value and crucial contribution to survival and cultural practices highlight the deep interdependence between these fish and Indigenous Peoples. This relationship emphasizes respect and sustainable stewardship.


In its dried form, the oolichan becomes a source of light called “candlefish.” When lit, it burns slowly, similar to a candle. This unique property made the oolichan a valuable commodity, akin to the precious salmon oil historically used for lighting and cooking. Both resources exemplify Indigenous innovation and sustainable utilization of natural gifts.

Photos from SkeenaWild’s Education Programs Manager, Marie Blouin’s, day out on the river. 

Grease Trails

The grease trails epitomize the cultural and economic significance of the oolichan. These extensive trade routes facilitated the exchange of eulachon oil among Indigenous Peoples. This network was essential for trading valuable goods such as furs and copper, mirroring the trade routes established around salmon products. These trails highlight the resourcefulness and connectivity of Indigenous communities, who navigated challenging landscapes to share and trade resources crucial to their survival and cultural practices.

Hobiyee Celebration

Hobiyee, which can also be spelled as Hoobiyee, Hobiiyee or Hoobiiyee, is the Nisg̱aʼa new year celebration that takes place every February or March. This celebration marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring when the oolichans, the first food supply, arrive in the rivers. It also symbolizes the emergence of the first crescent moon. During Hobiyee, if the crescent moon is seen with its edges pointing upwards, it is believed to be a sign of a prosperous year ahead with an abundance of salmon, oolichans (saak), berries, and other foods. During Hobiyee, if the crescent moon is seen with its edges pointing down (or sideways), it is believed to be a sign of a poor harvest year.

Understanding the role of the oolichan and its interconnectedness with other species like salmon provides insight into the rich tapestry of life in the Pacific Northwest region. This celebrates the oolichan’s significance and draws attention to the broader ecological and cultural connections that define this unique region.

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