Four years ago millions of tiny eggs lay in the gravel bed of the Adams River. Those not carefully covered ended up feeding other fish and wildlife or dried out on the river bank.
The eggs that did hatch provided more food for predators. Out of several thousand eggs laid by each female and fertilized by waiting miles, only a handful survived to make the perilous journey down the Thompson and Fraser rivers to reach the ocean.
Now, their lifespan coming to an end, the millions of salmon that evaded predators and the nets of fishers have swum 480 km, averaging 30 km a day, against the rivers’ currents and rapids. They have returned to complete their lifecycle along the 12-kilometre length of Adams River.
Over 34 million returning sockeye salmon have made the 2010 run the largest since 1913. It follows on the disastrous Fraser River run of 2009, when barely a million fish returned to their spawning grounds.
At the start of this journey, their silvery flanks were covered with black speckles. Their backs were a bluish grey. By the time they reached the spawning beds, the males had developed distinctive humps and hooked jaws. Both males and females had turned bright red, with green heads. Their bodies were scraped and bruised from fighting their way over gravel and rocks.
When we visited Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park, we found the river red with sockeye. The banks were covered with rotting corpses—food for birds, bears and other predators and nutrients for soil and water.
As we walked along the banks we saw males using some of their last strength fighting off other males for the privilege of fertilizing eggs. Females were searching for good spots to dig out a hole and lay their eggs. As quickly as a male fertilized them, the female would move slightly upstream and dig enough gravel to float down over the eggs.
The day was sunny but cool enough to temper the smell of rotting fish. Though there were dozens of other visitors (compared to thousands on busier days), we had easy access to viewing areas.
So we had plenty of time to watch these intrepid fish. Seeing their abundance, watching their persistent struggle, I thought of the difference between my own careless treatment of the bones and skin and inedible parts of this noble fish and the honouring I’ve witnessed in First Nations communities. Careful attention to ritual, from catching and preparing the salmon to disposing of uneaten bits, assured the fish would remain plentiful.
In 2010 the salmon run is plentiful, but we still know only pieces of the puzzle of the sockeye’s lifecycle. Over thirty million salmon returned this year, in spite of fish farming, environmental degradation, and overfishing. I’d like to think that by 2014 we will have learned to honour the extraordinary gift of these fish so that our grandchildren can look forward to more runs like this one instead of last year’s dismal showing.
You can see some of the jockeying for position in this video clip from our recent visit to Adams River:
JCVdude captured some good underwater footage in the middle portion of this video: