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Rod’s Travel Diary

Thursday, 21 Oct 2010

Location: Vancouver, Canada

MapThe Final Act

Part One
I’ve always liked fast cars. I once owned a bright red 1950s Austin Healy sports convertible. It was a blast, went like the clappers and I guess petrol still flows in my veins. So when my rented Toyota Tightassica was upgraded to a sports job, I was in heaven. I had 400 km of steep mountain roads to cover and an appointment with two million horny salmon at the end of it. Speed was good. Grabbing the keys and setting the stereo volume at 11, I tore off up the mountain on a warm, sunny, blue sky day (a rarity in the BC Fall). I was off to witness the final act in the great salmon drama that has fascinated me so these last months.

The 2010 Fraser River Sockeye Salmon run is the largest since 1913. In 2009 just 1.7 million salmon returned to spawn so this year’s tally of 25+ million is mind-boggling. Sockeye runs occur every year with the larger runs of sockeye generally occurring every 4 years (Sockeye take about 4 years to mature --1 year as river dwelling fingerlings and 3 years as sub-adults feeding on plankton and small crustaceans in the productive ocean waters where deep water up-wellings occur). So while a bigger than usual run in 2010 was expected, the wonderful and humbling thing about the massive numbers of sockeye this year is that, despite all the research and huge sums invested in salmon management, no-one predicted just how big it would be and so far no-one can really explain it.

What you can say is that many salmon in one place, fighting, spawning, thrashing, splashing and filling the rivers and creeks from bank to bank with their gorgeous deep plum red bodies is just stupendously, colossally awesome. It’s up there with the likes of the Serengeti wildebeest migration; the north American Monarch butterfly migrations; the nesting arribadas Olive Ridley sea turtles in central America; and the march of the Spiny Lobster, as one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth The Fraser River Sockeye Salmon run of 2010 is a massive celebration of bio-abundance that was not to be missed -- certainly worth the trifling hassle of rescheduling flights home.

Part Two
Canadians and Australians have much in common. We share the same queen on our coins, similar democratic institutions, a similar history of colonization and conquering frontiers (with similar tragic consequences for the original owners), same language and a similar dry sense of humour and understatement. But our lands are geological epochs apart and Canada, unlike my brown and sunburnt land, is awash with water. There are rivers, streams, and creeks every few steps. Every Canadian either has a cabin in the woods by a lake or knows someone who does. Of course, having lots of rain and snow helps keeps these rivers flowing and lakes full.

Canada is also blessed with colossal mountains and fertile soils - a truly rugged and geologically young landscape shaped by glaciers and recent volcanic activity. Australia, by comparison, is an ancient and flat dustbowl. Our mountains have been worn down to mere stubs compared to the heaven-reaching proportions of the Canadian Rockies. And with the exception of fertile, better watered pockets on our coastal fringe, Australian soils are impoverished and our rivers and creeks barely run at all.

Some facts and figures: North America receives over 800mm of annual precipitation and has an annual river discharge of 1.3 m (this a continent average and includes southern arid USA so the Canadian river flow is actually much greater than this). In contrast, Australia receives around 450 mm of rain and our rivers are the barest trickle with an annual river discharge of just 35 mm – about 37 times less than north America. (Note: see http://www.bom.gov.au/info/leaflets/ourcont.pdf).

Of course Australia’s rainfall is highly variable and when our rivers actually run it’s often in cataclysmic floods -- made worse by our treatment of the land as though it were a well-watered paradise with fertile and robust soils like the England that early farmers arrived from. Australia is truly a land of droughts and flooding rains –but the floods are infrequent and unpredictable.

It’s the volume and predictability of the Canadian rivers that made them the highways of the developing nation of Canada. Plus the landscape, for the most part, was just so rugged and impenetrable that rivers provided the only passage. The Canadian landscape is a patchwork of old trading routes and trading posts determined by catchment geography and the trading activities of First Nations who bartered goods across hundreds and even thousands of kilometres. Later in Canada’s history, enormous trading empires like the mighty Hudson Bay Company pulsed through these arteries of the Canadian economy – borne along on trading canoes of all shapes and sizes. Any Canadian can tell you what portage means while I suspect many Australians have never even been in a canoe. Railways, and in more recent times, sealed highways have now replaced old river routes, and trains and trucks have replaced canoes. But waterborne passengers and commerce still prevail in rugged wilderness areas like coastal BC; and of course, canoes and river journeys remain part of Canadian history and folklore.

Rivers aren’t just highways for people of course. They are also transport corridors for wildlife such as fish. And a highway/railway analogy suits the Fraser River with its multitude of tributaries each with its own unique salmon stock. All 5 of the Pacific salmon species occur in the Fraser River and there are 150 (genetically) distinct salmon stocks that return to the tributary of the Fraser River where they were born. Each stock migrates and spawns at distinct times so the Fraser River, at any time from May to November, is carrying multiple distinct salmon stocks of several different species, with different origins and different destinations and different schedules. The timetable would be as complicated as that of Canada Rail.

Imagine it from a sockeye salmon’s perspective. They are born in rivers and streams as much as 500 or even 1000 km from the sea. After a hazardous year of scrounging an existence in freshwater they migrate downstream to the ocean. Whilst at sea they travel tens of thousands of kilometres in their search for food for their rapidly growing bodies. After 3 years or so they gather into schools with their close relatives and begin their long migration back to the exact river of their birth. They stop feeding as they enter freshwater and their bodies change shape and colour dramatically as they travel upstream. These new look salmon have only one thing on their mind – sex.

Traveling some 30km a day, the sockeye must surmount major obstacles like rapids and waterfalls, avoid getting mislead into joining a different salmon stock, and then find again the river, creek or stream where they were born. It’s a high risk life style -- only 1 in every 4000 eggs laid makes it back up the river to spawn. But it’s probably just as well -- otherwise 25 million salmon laying up to 8000 eggs per couple would have most of BC knee deep in salmon in just a few years.

It’s a bit of mystery how the salmon find their birthplace – scientists point to stellar navigation and the smell of their river. Local folklore certainly supports the importance of river smell. When Hells Gate canyon in Fraser River was largely blocked by rock falls during the construction of the Trans-Canada railway in 1913, fish ladders were built to help fish around it. (Fish ladders are built as a series of stepped pools that the salmon can leap or swim between to ascend a barrier that is too high too leap otherwise). According to local folklore, one salmon stock was stalled at the bottom of the newly-installed ladder, seemingly unable to proceed. An inspired salmon expert released a truck full of water from their home river down the ladder and the salmon were soon on their way again up the ladders. A truck-full of water into the mighty Fraser is just a drop in a very, very large bucket.

Canadians, like Australians, appreciate irony. And the great irony of the unexpected immensity of the 2010 Fraser River salmon run is that it coincides with an official enquiry into why the Fraser River salmon fishery has collapsed. Over-fishing, habitat loss, increases in predator numbers, and new diseases and genetic weakening arising from the escape of salmon from salmon farms, as well as just plain bad fisheries management, have all been blamed for the massive declines over the last few decades. And the declines have undeniably happened. But the massive rebound in numbers remains largely unexplained and has even raised concerns that there are too many salmon now and their spawning will be damaged by their own sheer numbers.

Too many salmon also means that the price drops and in fact many fishermen claim that the oversupply means they can’t even sell their catch even though the fishing season has been limited to a few periods of just 32 hours. Back in August in Bella Bella, coastal BC, some 50 000 salmon from the Fraser River fishery, were delivered to the 1400 Heiltsuk residents as part of the First Nations allocation of the catch. Its just as well the Heiltsuk are an industrious mob because the backyard canneries, smokehouses, drying racks and barbeques had to work over time for a week processing the fish for winter stores to come.

Salmon drive economies and ecosystems in BC. They are a hot topic of discussion, and opinions are as diverse as the salmon stocks themselves. But there is no doubt about the respect and affection Canadians have for their salmon.

Part Three

The Adams River, part of the Fraser River system, is a major spawning ground for sockeye. In 1977 the Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park was established along the Adams River to protect some 65 ha of the “finest sockeye spawning grounds in British Columbia” – and in 2010, 2 million sockeye salmon are expected to try them out. In their honour, locals hold a “Salute to the Sockeye Festival” – an event that happens once every 4 years to celebrate the “majesty, beauty and tragically poignant life of the Pacific Sockeye Salmon” (http://www.salmonsociety.com/). The 2010 Salute, with 2 million sockeye salmon as guests of honour, and 300 000 humans to salute them, is the shindig to be at. The opening day extravaganza had speeches, bands and dancing and a performances from amongst the record 23 entries in the best song about salmon competition. Local politicians were on hand to smooch a salmon for that photo-op. Community service groups and a hundred or so volunteers gathered en-masse to run the month long event and manage the traffic gridlock and the visitors who will come to witness one of the largest single aggregations of spawning sockeye on earth.

And I’ve been low flying up the mountain highway to be here to see it…

I’m here on day 3 and its still a carnival -- information booths, artist stalls, food caravans, picnic grounds, dozens of yellow buses disgorging hundreds of excited school kids and parking mayhem (some 63 school buses visited in one day on the 2006 salute!). Hundreds of excited, fascinated and reverent humans line the banks. Fingers point, cameras flash and hushed and excited voices fill the air. To avoid the crush I walk some 5 km of river and its salmon, salmon, salmon all the way. Salmon thrashing, splashing and fighting, locking jaws and biting at tails and bodies… every fish bears scars from fights and the long arduous swim through shallows, rapids and waterfalls… and the occasional narrow escape from an eagle or bear. Mating pairs rest together every few metres or so, or circle each other, maybe sizing each other up. Others, past the introductions, are a side-down thrashing the gravel bed with the tails to create a small hollow into which the female releases here eggs. The male follows doing a little shimmy as he ejaculates.

From overhead it looks like the entire river bed has measles except there is constant movement between the red splashes of colour. In backwaters and slower flowing pools, huge balls of salmon congregate to rest. They have traveled over 450km to get here and its not surprising they are a little tired and bruised. Hundreds of dorsal fins pierce the surface and the water moves red and black with the movement of gargantuan numbers of fish. The water is shallow and the fish easy to catch and bears and eagles grow fat at this time. The bears on the Adams River hunt at night -- too shy perhaps to face the many visitors but their salmon-rich droppings and dismembered dead salmon are obvious on the river banks. As they rot they will provide a massive injection of fertiliser to the riverside forests. The abundance of life here is overwhelming but so is the abundance of death. Every few minutes a newly dead salmon, its red colour already fading, drifts past.

But under water, swimming with the salmon, is where I want to be. With a well-fed bear grumbling in the bushes nearby, I don my dry suit, mask and snorkel and slide into the water. Its cold…like really, really, really f cking cold and I can feel it through several layers of thermals. My face is numb and my head is crushed with an ice-cream cold of Olympic proportions. But the discomfort evaporates as the salmon, momentarily dispersed by my entry, begin to mill around me.

It’s the sockeye that grab my attention first with their bright red bodies and green grey heads. The massive humpback and upturned snout and big curved teeth of the males gives them a ferocious look and I momentarily wonder what would happen if they were to turn on me like piranhas. An angry mob of salmon weighing 4 kg apiece and 70-80 cm long could do a bit of damage. But despite the big teeth and an attitude problem, the sockeye are really just a swimming gonad driven by hormones and I’m just a log, or rock or another yet another thing to swim around. We get used to each other and quickly the closing crowd of red-green bodies fills my vision. Many bear stark white scars from their long upriver journey, fights, mishaps at waterfalls and rapids and narrow escapes from hungry bears and eagles.

Amongst the sockeye, like dark battle-weary submarines, gigantic chinook salmon appear occasionally. Its definitely sockeye night at the prom and most of the chinook can’t find a date, but every so often a pair get lucky and the happy couple waltz together among the sockeye like basketball players at a midget’s ball.

Lurking bewildered amongst the ruby resplendence of the sockeye, and justifiably so, are drably-dressed jack salmon. These are juveniles that, for inexplicable reasons, have followed their older cousins upriver and now find themselves date-less and frock-less and without a way home. I find them vaguely disturbing – reminding me of a recurrent childhood nightmare in which I arrive at school half-naked having forgotten to don my underwear and trousers.

The final players are the brook trout, darting through the crowd in fine shape, silver grey with spots and a healthy pink glow. They are in heaven, feeding and fattening on the mega-abundance of salmon eggs that litter the gravel creek bed. And swirling slowly in back eddies and hollows, or drifting past in the current’s embrace, are the battered bodies of dead salmon. Wedged under a log, I watch the passing parade of life and death for hours until my hand, lifeless and numb from the cold, can’t depress the shutter button anymore. It’s time to get out.

It’s a gorgeous blue sky warm day and the warmth is slowly returning to my body. For a self-confessed fish lover (I firmly believe that time spent watching fish is not deducted from your life span), it’s been the greatest show on earth. But my excitement is tempered by the knowledge that soon, very soon, all these fish will be dead and their ripe, red bodies lifeless and still. In life is death.

Already the ripe stench of decaying fish fills the air. Battered, scarred and rotting bodies squelch under my feet. Trapped in the carpet of my car, the smell will remain with me for the long drive home, reminding me that all is impermanent.

The irony is that if you came unknowingly to the Adams River, the stench and the piles of rotting fish would seem an environmental disaster of monumental proportions. Yet it’s a scene of a river ecosystem in the best of health… and of one of the great planetary cycles in full swing.

I’m going to leave the final words of this story to the late Roderick Haig-Brown, conservationist, author and magistrate and someone I would have enjoyed watching fish with. In his book, The Salmon, written in 1974, Roderick said:
"The salmon runs are a visible symbol of life, death and regeneration, plain for all to see and share... The salmon are a test of a healthy environment, a lesson in environmental needs. Their abundant presence on the spawning beds is a lesson of hope, of deep importance for the future of man. If there is ever a time when the salmon no longer return, man will know he has failed again and moved one stage nearer to his own final disappearance."