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.