|Returning Sockeye salmon|
|Harbour seal with bullet wound|
Without getting into the debate about which came first, the salmon or the egg, salmon eggs are laid and hatched in the hundreds of fresh water rivers and streams along the West Coast of Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and Northern California, often hundreds of miles upstream from the ocean. The juveniles stay in the fresh water for a year or so and then swim hundreds of miles into the open ocean where they spend the rest of their lives fattening up (1-5 years depending on which species) before returning with built-in GPS precision to the exact same place in the fresh water river they were born in, to spawn and die. Even though the females lay thousands of eggs, the life expectancy numbers are shocking. More than 90% of these fish die before returning to spawn, mostly in the open ocean, but they still manage to return by the millions.
It is the predictability of the salmon life cycle that enabled First Nations people on the West Coast to easily catch the returning salmon and depend on them for their own survival. It's estimated there are 137 other species from eagles to grizzly bears and even the forest itself that depend on the salmon for part of their diet. Unlike other fish species that would continue to grow if they weren't caught (tuna, halibut, swordfish, etc.) the salmon are going to die shortly after returning to spawn because they only spawn once in their life a term known as "semelparous" a reproductive characteristic shared primarily with insects and, interestingly enough, the octopus. Just as the poor sockeye run this year was easily predicted by their 4 year cycle and the terrible run of 2009, so too was the excellent pink salmon run with its return in odd numbered years.