Upon seeing the carcass of the fish on the riverbank, It’s life flashed before my eyes.
The tiny red egg in the gravel with cold water rushing over it. The Alevin, emerging from the egg and remaining under the gravel where it was born, growing and absorbing its nutritious yolk sac. The fry, emerging from the gravel and swimming about its fresh water home. Learning to hunt by catching small insects from the surface and sinking organic matter. Trying to survive until it is big enough to go out into the saltwater. The smolt, changing from river to ocean fish, going out into the big water where it will start it’s great journey. The young salmon, making it’s way out to sea where it will spend two to eight years feeding and growing before returning to it’s home stream to spawn.
The female salmon “digs” a nest, or redd, to lay her eggs into with her tail in the gravel. The male then deposits his milt, or sperm, over them and the female buries them again. After spawning, most salmon die. That’s when the real magic starts.
The carcass I am seeing is only bone now, in early January. But the flesh of this delicious and healthy animal has been distributed generously, for all living things. Land animals like bears, wolves and people gorge on the sweet fatty meat when the fish are coming up the rivers. Eagles, seagulls, crows and ravens pick the fish out of the river or dine on the leftovers after larger predators have taken the choice morsels. Rodents, small mammals and insects come feast as well.
When all stirring things have had their fill, the feast is not done. Decomposing salmon, and the feces of those who have eaten it, is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. In a forest where endless rain washes away nutrients from decomposing plant matter, these fish are the “miracle grow” that trees need.
Trees near a salmon bearing river grow up to three times faster and larger than trees that don’t get that nutrient boost. When you count the rings of a tree, a larger ring means a good growth year. Those years coincide with a good salmon return.
For a very long time, the people of the west coast of North America were very rich, for they had access to this healthy and plentiful fish. They fished in summer and dried the salmon fillets to eat during winter. A great culture flourished. The people only ever took what they needed and showed great respect to the salmon, for they knew the success of the fish was their own, and it’s demise would be their own as well.
When the new people came to the coast in large ships, they were welcomed by the long time locals. They were allowed to begin new lives here, on the sole condition that they would respect the fish, so that all the people could eat and continue the rich legacy of a healthful, bountiful life. The new people settled and began to fish as well.
When the new people invented bigger boats with engines and bigger nets and caught more fish, stocks began to deplete. Then canning was invented and the new people opened up canneries to send the rich fish to far away places for greater profits. The locals were employed and for the first time worked for money, instead of fish. Many salmon were canned and sent away until there were not enough fish to can. The canneries closed and the locals lost their jobs. They had no more money to buy food at the store, and the salmon were not as plentiful.
When large scale logging came to the west coast, the largest and most prized trees were in these lush valleys. The companies logged right next to the river and there was nothing to hold the soil. Dirt washed into the river and buried the gravel beds. Logs left behind clogged the streams and made it impossible for the fish to get home. The fish stopped coming and the people went hungry. The jobs they had for a short time did not pay for the poverty they have endured since.
When fish farming companies came to the west coast and started using the pacific to grow Atlantic salmon, the fish were unhealthy. They fit many fish in small net-pens and fed them corn based pellets filled with dyes and rapid growth drugs. Many fish became sick. Diseases spread among them, and then to pacific salmon. Many farms depleted all the oxygen in the inlet, and the farm had to be abandoned because nothing could survive in that inlet anymore. But no one came to take those farms away. They are still there, rusting and rotting into the water.
When I see the salmon swimming upstream, I fear I am seeing one of the last great creatures. I want my children to fish, and be fed on such a delicacy, so that their bodies and minds can be strong and they can be connected to their home, to the ocean.
When I see the salmon jump in the ocean I am happy, because I know it is going home.
When I see the salmon’s carcass on the riverbank, I am not sad that it has died. I am happy for everything it has given. I am happy for the orca, eagles, the bears and the people. I am happy for the trees. And I know that if all goes well, the many children of that one fish will be born soon, and they will live their own great journey, and come back again. And if we are lucky and we take care of them, there will be another feast.