Saturday, September 24, 2011

Its Really all About the Salmon

Once again this year, we are watching and wondering about the salmon returns to the Glendale River in Knight Inlet. According to the DFO weekly counts, the return is far below what the 2010 out migration of 20 million salmon fry should produce. Last count I heard was about 80 thousand adult pinks have returned to spawn. Early estimates hoped for up to a million returning pinks, even half that would be possible in good ocean conditions. That count may go up, but normally by this time of year all the fish are lying in the deep river pools. At the same time we are listening to reports from the Cohen Commission on the sockeye collapse of 2009 and wonder if anything will actually come out of spending millions of dollars on another exercise in futility. One company pointing blame fingers at the other, the environmentalists pointing at industry and the government pleading innocence, confusion, lack of funding, low staff numbers and muzzling of key scientists. One scientist disagrees with others, doctors of this and doctors of that who cannot or do not want to cooperate with each other for fear of tumbling their own house of cards in the gamble to appear to correct the apparent demise of wild salmon.

In the meantime, the time honoured struggle by the salmon to propagate their species continues in innumerable rivers along the west coast of North America. Everyday the salmon face more obstacles than we can count, both man made and natural. It is these challenges that make me pause to wonder at their unselfish determination. Everyday I stand along side the river observing salmon waiting patiently in the deep pools for their body's hormones to complete the metamorphosis from powerful, sleek, silver ocean fish to the dark, ragged and torn specimen, determined to spawn in the river of their birth. The females grow dark green with pink highlights as their eggs ripen once they hit the fresh river water. The males also grow dark green with yellow and pink highlights; their backs grow into a large hump and their jaws become more hooked with large canine teeth. These transformations happen relatively quickly, over about 6 weeks. I watched the first salmon female digging her redd the other day until she was chased off temporarily by an eagle looking for a fishy meal.
Some of our guests wonder why these fish turn so ugly as they prepare to spawn. I often equate our own pregnant female with the spawning salmon. I have never found them to be beautiful either. I do admire the dedication and the beauty that the salmon have for their mates, even though they are "ugly!" Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I continue to understand and appreciate the beauty of the natural world.

I watch as the salmon finally leave the security of the deep, tannin stained pools, in a rush through the shallows to get to their final spawning site. Sometimes they go as a mob, rushing, splashing, scurrying through shallow riffles, hoping to confuse a waiting, predatory bear or eagle. It seems that there may be safety in numbers as the odds of getting "me" lessen, may motivate this rush, like a beach head attack on D-day. Occasionally they sneak up, one at a time, hoping nobody will notice their strategic advance.

Of course, every once in a while the bear wins. As cheerleaders, watching this age old contest, we often have mixed feelings about which team to cheer for. We know how crucial it is for the bear to get the maximum calories that it needs to have a fat cushion for the coming 5 months of fasting hibernation. On years when there is a large enough salmon return, it is not so difficult to cheer for the bears. During the bear feast, when they need 50 thousand or more calories per day, we know that it requires a lot of fish to satisfy this hyperphagia. ( I figure about 2000 calories per fish).
On years when there are few salmon our loyalties are challenged, understanding how important it is to the long term health of the environment that each salmon makes it to spawn, before getting eaten.

In the meantime, all we can do as interested spectators is to raise awareness and understanding of the plight of the salmon and bears. As the salmon are a "keystone" species and the bears are "top of the food chain" species, both of their secure, strong numbers will ensure that the whole environment around them will also be healthy. Irregardless of what Justice Cohen decides next year, the healthy wilderness still comes down to the courage, the determination and the wisdom of each animal to survive and continue the struggle to propagate their own species.

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