Sunday, October 27, 2013

Strangers In The Night

One of the advantages of shorter daylight hours in autumn is that I get to go for my morning swim in the dark. Now, while that may sound a little strange and scary, there are a couple of mitigating factors that make night swimming particularly beautiful. The first, particularly if the sky is clear, is having a little moonlight to guide you on the way.  At this time of year the moon is always overhead in the early morning hours and there's nothing more beautiful than a pathway of silver light over the ocean, even if you only have a seal to share the experience with.

Moon over English Bay - photo by Junie Quiroga
The other, perhaps even more interesting occurrence is the sparkling light that suddenly appears in the ocean itself as soon as you dip your hand in the water and a milky way of microscopic stars suddenly appears. What I'm referring to of course is a phenomena known as bio-luminescence, something made famous in the movie "Life of Pi".  Bioluminescence is a brief blue flash emitted by a type of marine plankton, known as dinoflagellates, when they are disturbed.

Microscopic photos of dinoflagellates
These dinoflagellates bloom in concentrations by the millions and, for the most part are quite harmless. However, at certain times of the year, particularly in the summer when nutrients are especially abundant, they reproduce in such a rapid fashion they become toxic and the ocean turns a reddish brown colour which is known as "red tide". The toxins they produce accumulate in shellfish and can be fatal to humans who eat them which is the reason there are often shellfish closures on the coast.

Red tide at midnight

In spite of being responsible for "red tide" most dinoflagellates are quietly nibbling on smaller algae and photosynthesizing during the day and only turn on their lights at night as a protective mechanism. The theory is similar to that of deterring a burglar when one enters your home and the lights go on to scare him/her off. In the case of the "dinos" the light not only exposes the predator, it makes them visible to other fish who might be looking for a meal. Very clever when you haven't got much else to defend yourself with, and it's all thanks to an enzyme called "luciferin".

Fortunately for the "dinos" I'm not interested in eating any of them, and fortunately for me there isn't anything out there interested in eating me either when the lights go on.  Occasionally I see a fish or a seal swim by bathed in blue/green light and it just makes me realize how magical the ocean really is. Photographs others have managed to take also demonstrate the beautiful effect such a small creature can have on such a vast area. So between the moon and stars above and the bioluminescence below I've got all the light I need and I'm quite happy to be swimming with these strangers in the night.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Long And Winding Road

Returning Sockeye salmon 
Once again this year all the players in the salmon fishing industry were up in arms, pointing fingers, and trying to blame one another for the non-existent sockeye salmon run.  It wasn't until the pink salmon showed up in such overwhelming numbers that everyone finally quietened down and focused on hauling in their fair share while grumbling about the price. Meanwhile behind the scenes environmentalists, Fisheries officials, scientists, commercial & recreational fishing interests, not to mention fish farm operators and First Nations groups continue to push their own agendas regardless of the facts.

Harbour seal with bullet wound
One of the first casualties of the truth is of course the harbour seal.  For some reason fishermen think the seal population threatens the fish population and are competing with them for the salmon.  On the East coast massive seal culling has been justified on the same false logic and, while on the West coast hunting seals is not allowed, there are still those fishermen who take things in their own hands when they think nobody is watching.  Seals who have been shot eventually wash up on local beaches providing grisly evidence of people's ignorance. Simply put, if the seals ate all the fish they would soon starve to death themselves but, if there's a growing seal population, clearly there are plenty of fish to go around.  Nature, unlike Mankind, always has a way of keeping things in balance and seals also have predators, including of course transient killer whales.

There are 5 principal species of Pacific salmon and, while each one has its own distinct characteristics, they have a common life cycle that sets them apart from nearly every other animal on the planet.  Indeed there is something about their clarity of purpose and purity, in spite of everything we've done to ruin their habitat and fish them to near extinction, that makes them the poster child for making this world right again.  Instead of finger pointing we all need to stop for a moment and examine the salmon life cycle a little more closely.

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.

Pink Salmon
Unlike humans who live to consume, the salmon consumes to live and then, after braving countless obstacles on its heroic journey through life, it returns to its place of birth and sacrifices its body for the good of the community with the conviction the community will in turn nourish its offspring so the cycle can continue. Imagine what we could do for the future of our planet if we had the singularity of purpose the salmon have and their community spirit?  It's a long and winding road for the Pacific salmon but at least they know where they're going, what they need to do, and how much time they've got; if only we could say the same about ourselves.