Eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus)

Eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus)

The eulachon is a member of the smelt family, Osmeridae. It is one of the largest members of this family of small Pacific coast fish and has been important to the Chinook Indians. High in oil content (15 percent of its body weight), eulachon used to be dried and fitted with wicks for use as candles.

Like other smelt, the eulachon is important as forage food for Pacific salmon, as well as for marine mammals and birds. It is also harvested or caught commercially and is a highly esteemed seafood by Native Americans from California to Alaska. Although some are hard-salted, these surf smelt are too delicate to be preserved and are generally smoked.


The eulachon is a small slender fish, with a stubby adipose fin just in front of the tail. The lower jaw projects slightly beyond the tip of the snout. Its coloring is bluish-black on the back, fading to silvery white on the belly. Smelt are so similar in appearance that it is difficult to differentiate among species. Its larger size, however, helps distinguish the eulachon from its relatives.


The eulachon can reach up to 12 inches. It generally lives 2 to 3 years.

Spawning behavior

Eulachon spawn between March and May, when they enter freshwater tributaries from Northern California to the Bering Sea. They mature when they reach 2 to 3 years of age and die following spawning.


The eulachon feeds on planktonic crustaceans.

Other Names

candlefish, hooligan; French: eulachon, eulakane.


This fish is common throughout cool northern Pacific waters, with a range from west of St. Matthews Island and Kuskokwim Bay in the Bering Sea, and Bowers Bank in the Aleutian Islands to Monterey Bay in California.


This fish is found near shore and in coastal inlets and rivers. It spends its life at sea prior to spawning.