Tag Archives: Wild Salmon Cycle

what mystery?

So we’ve only known this for how long?

the Great Cycles

Salmon are a cycle.

They come and go like seasons;

like tides;

like the weather.

Or… as is happening in the north right now — like birds.

The other day I saw the first few robins starting to brave the several feet of snow still in our yard in BC’s central interior. I also saw the first hawk of the year a few days ago.

Yesterday afternoon, in a stop at the grocery story my daughter spotted something like this, way above us:

the cycles of spring

Canada Geese on their way north.

And so what else comes with spring?

salmonberry bush in the spring

Well… on the coast, salmonberry bushes will start to blossom.

Some folks suggest the bush got its name because First Nations folks ate salmon with the berries… others suggest its because the berries look like small clusters of eggs.


Growing up on Haida Gwaii, I had it suggested to me that the link was that when the berries started to ripen it meant it was time to go fishing for sockeye…

(I also learned — the hard way (on several occasions) — that gorging on salmonberries can lead to some gastric distress… kind of like some of the debates surrounding salmon…)

_ _ _ _ _ _

And then last week the media jumped on the story about scientists “proving” the deep-reaching links of the salmon cycle… This story out of the Ottawa Citizen, of all places:

Fish nutrients fertilize soil

Salmon may live in the water, but a new study shows they help shape the forest.

A study of 50 watersheds in the Great Bear Rainforest on British Columbia’s central coast says bears, fish-catching wolves and other predators haul huge amounts of salmon into the forest that provide a potent “nutrient subsidy” that drives plant growth in the surrounding forest.

Nitrogen released by the fish favours some plants – such as the aptly named salmonberry -while pushing out other species, researchers from Simon Fraser University published in the journal Science’s Friday edition.

“Salmon are important to us not just because of their value in fisheries and for food, but they also can be having quite significant impacts on our surroundings,” says biologist John Reynolds, co-author of the four-year study.

Salmon in the Great Bear Rainforest are so plentiful that the region’s wolves have specialized to catch the fish live as they swim through shallow waters on their way to spawning streams, says Reynolds.

The wolves, like the bears, leave a lot of the fish behind.

“The wolves typically eat only the head or the brain,” he says.

Working with the Heiltsuk First Nation the researchers counted how many salmon migrated up different streams -and found “thousands” of fish spawning in some of the coastal streams, many which had not been surveyed before, says Reynolds.

Bears, wolves and other predators “can transfer more than 50 per cent of the salmon to the forest,” they report. The rest of the fish, which die after spawning, either rot along the stream banks or are washed downstream.

To assess the impact, they looked at stream chemistry and what grew in surrounding forests.

“We looked at all plants that we encountered, from lichens to shrubs,” says Reynolds.

They found species, such as salmonberry and stink currant, thriving along streams with plenty of salmon. Plants such as blueberry and false azalea prefer nutrient poor soils and were less common.

_ _ _ _ _ _

As I pointed out in a post last week… it’s great to see some of these sorts of things hitting the mainstream media. However, it should be remembered that this sort of thing has been ‘known’ for a long, long, long time throughout the range of Pacific salmon… Not “hidden” as the article suggests… (maybe hidden to those that understand natural cycles… or those that isolate things into little categories… kind of like government departments that separate “managing” bears from “managing” salmon…)

State of the Salmon: Salmon Atlas -- Original Pacific salmon distribution


As a more recent example, in their 1999 paper: Pacific salmon carcasses: Essential Contributions of Nutrients and Energy for Aquatic and Terrestrial Ecosystems. Jeff Cederholm and colleagues state:

Pacific salmon also have been considered important vectors for returning significant amounts of nutrients from the northern Pacific Ocean back to land, representing a unique way to move nutrients upstream. This subject has attracted attention from scientists and economists throughout the Pacific Rim.

Consider Japan’s Edo era (1603-1867), when people believed that a streamside forest could provide fish with numerous benefits such as cover, nutrients, and food. This belief remained in the minds of people living near waterfronts or forests after the Meiji Restoration (1868).

When the first forest act of Japan was introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century, it contained an article ordering conservation of uo-tsuki-rin, literally “fish attracting forest.” Using anecdotal information, Sibatani (1996) suggested that uo-tsuki-rin may operate in the opposite direction: “The land near rivers is well fertilized by the ocean nutrients brought by ascending (spawning) salmon, which causes the forests to thrive.

_ _ _ _ _ _

So let’s think about this for a few seconds…

the great salmon cycle

We have this great cycle that has gone on for thousands and thousands and thousands of years.

Salmon spawn then die, babies are born in the spring, head to the ocean, cycle through the North Pacific, head home, spawn, die.

The death feeds everything around — including the babies, and the cycle begins again.

And so on, and so on, and so on….

But then in the late 1800s, a new factor enters the equation… a cycle of another kind: an economic cycle with largely one sole purpose. Profit.

And so the equation is something akin to this:

Salmon equation through late 1800s and entire 1900s


So in sticking with the analogies from the beginning… (and this isn’t very “scientific”)…

What would happen in the north if we removed 75% of the seasons?


Seasons captured?

Would we expect the “Fall” to keep producing the same amount of things we have come to expect? 

_ _ _ _ _

What about the geese?

captured geese?

If we captured 80 – 100% would we expect the few remaining to keep producing the same numbers?

(granted some folks aren’t big fans of geese and suggest they are killing salmon…)

_ _ _ _ _




So this is the part that gets me…

There’s some apparent great “mystery” out there on why salmon populations are crashing…

There’s even a $15 – $20 million judicial inquiry going on right now over one year (2009) of crashed sockeye populations in the Fraser River: the Cohen Commission.

Within the Commission is a whole ream of scientists scrambling to find the ‘smoking gun’… (made all the more bizarre with the monster return of Fraser sockeye last year — 2010).

_ _ _ _ _ _

If we know it’s a cycle and over the last 125 years or so we’ve done our best to obliterate the cycle — not just through overfishing — then why are fish populations, with industrial fisheries focused upon them, so “mysterious” when they collapse?

What happens if I take 75% of the gas out of your car?

What happens if take 75% of the money out of your bank account?

What happens if I cut the value of interest collected on your investments by 75%?

Or, for that fact, cut your investments by 75%? (as experienced by a few folks in the last few years).

What if we interrupted the water cycle — and harvested 75% of the rain fall in the Okanagan over the next 50 years?

A cycle is a cycle is a cycle.

If we humans decide to interrupt naturally occurring cycles by “harvesting” or “consuming” for ourselves– we’re going to have an impact.

No one puzzled all that greatly on what happened to Cod… no on puzzled all that greatly on what happened to the variety of over-harvested whales… no one is puzzling all that greatly on what’s happening to the world’s tuna populations… or even BC’s Coho populations for that fact.

And the starving grizzly bear’s of Rivers Inlet on BC’s coast?

Well… if you went to a restaurant and they only served you 25% of what you ordered — what would be the impact? (And then you had to fight all the other restaurant goers for your share of what used to be enough)

What if every time you go to the grocery store and you were only able to buy 25% of what you normally do?

I think you probably get my point…. still a mystery?


Judicial inquiry? "Here we go again…" (Version 10.0)

Is it me, or is the announcement of another judicial inquiry like a bad Microsoft Windows release? Just as we think we couldn’t possibly download another Windows update or patch – the next version comes out. I have found a federal parliamentary report from 2004 titled: Here we go again, or the 2005 Fraser river salmon fishery.

Twelve recommendations and yet, here we go again….

A quick review of online searches shows an impressive list of reports and investigations into Pacific salmon over the last three decades.  From what I have seen personally in declines in my favorite rivers and streams, and looking through records of numbers of salmon spawning in streams – there’s little doubt as to why so many investigations have been launched.

Unfortunately, this isn’t like some t.v. episode of CSI (crime scene investigation) or other cop show where the investigators  always get their bad guy. It’s kind of more like episodes of X-Factor where the mystery continues… although in X-Factor I don’t think they finish the program with some longgg list of recommendations. (and its not that I’m much of a t.v.-fan – it just makes a decent analogy here).

I’m trying to compile an accurate and sequential list of the number of inquiries, parliamentary standing committees, Pearse et al. reports, Mifflin Plans, special investigations, independent analyses, and whatever other investigations that have occurred regarding Pacific salmon in my lifetime. At first review – it’s not that easy so I’m sure someone out there has a good list.

The next question I have is how much have these ‘investigations’ cost?

Secondly, how much has all the follow-up cost – or lack of?

I can’t say I’ve found all that many reports titled “Mifflin Plan: – five years later how we successfully implemented the recommendations”. (Doesn’t mean those aren’t out there – let me know if they are).

As mentioned in a previous post or two – one of the better programs I have seen come out of the Fisheries and Oceans behemoth bureaucracy is the Habitat Restoration and Enhancement Program (HRSEP). Yes, I have some bias as I was fortunate to get two years of really interesting and satisfying work with a small community group on Haida Gwaii (off the coast of British Columbia) where I grew up and almost a year of work with a First Nation in the central Yukon – all under funding from the HRSEP initiative.

The program was roughly $50 million over 4-5 years in the late 1990s with a focus on rehabilitating salmon habitat throughout B.C. and the Yukon. (Good idea, maybe just consider doing it for more than one life cycle).

What if we took all the funding allocated to political investigations, parliamentary hearings (done in Ottawa a few thousand k.m. away from the nearest salmon), and sandbox bickering and actually put it into more programs on-the-ground?

What if we took all the funding and instead of pumping it into multi-million dollar ‘science’ programs that tell us squid are eating baby salmon off western Vancouver Island – and put it into compiling the incredible depth of knowledge in every community connected to wild salmon?

(not that I am one to suggest that all of the scientific investigations are bad – or that compiling “more data” is going to solve the problems – just some thoughts).

Or, continuing with the Microsoft analogy, if anyone has seen the latest commercials (oh damn, I’m using t.v. references again – truly, not much of a watcher, just a hockey fan). The commercials surrounding the Windows 7 release have average folks talking about how features of Windows 7: “were my idea”.

What if in programs guiding how we care for wild salmon – everyday folks could say: “Coho Creek habitat rehabilitation… my idea”?

Or, “designing effective community salmon forums… my idea”?

In 2004, the BC government formed the Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform. One hundred and sixty citizens from all the constituencies of BC  met for ten months through 2004: “studying electoral systems in use around the world, holding public hearings, accepting public submissions, and finally reaching a decision.” The Assembly was designed to be “an independent, non-partisan assembly of citizens who examined the province’s electoral system.”

The budget for the Assembly was under $5 million. And sure the referendum in 2009 didn’t institute the recommendations of the Assembly – but then not instituting the recommendations of multi-million dollar reports is kind of the theme here.

The work of the Assembly will not go away – plus there are now 160 BC citizens that are probably a lot more engaged in the political process. Plus a search online shows that the Assembly’s work is discussed around the world as many other areas look at electoral reform.

What if something like the Citizen’s Assembly was done to investigate how we look after wild salmon?

What if a Citizen’s assembly could study wild salmon systems in use around the world, holding public hearings, accepting public submissions, and finally reaching a decision.

The Assembly could be an independent, non-partisan assembly of citizens (with significant representation of First Nations) who examine how we care for the wild salmon systems in Western Canada – and Western North America for that fact.

The upcoming judicial inquiry into Fraser River sockeye is suggested to cost in the range of $20 million. Could we not undertake a citizen’s assembly for less – and be more effective?

No disrespect intended for those who have called for the judicial inquiry, nor Justice Cohen who will oversee the inquiry. It’s simply that after years of getting the same things out of these processes (albeit expensive $$) – and then turning to Fisheries and Oceans to actually change and better manage salmon – is completely irresponsible, pointless, and sad.

On my bookshelf is a book called Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins by Annette Simmons. On one hand, that is exactly the problems that I see – a judicial inquiry is built upon the premise of the adversarial legal system that we pride ourselves upon. Evidence is weighed and the best advocate for their argument wins based on a balance of probabilities, or, beyond a reasonable doubt. (yes, I understand the inquiry is a little more administrative than a court of law…)

However, on the other hand, as Simmons explains on the cover jacket of her book:

People float in an ocean of data and disconnected facts that can overwhelm them with choices. In this ocean of choice, a meaningful story can feel like a life preserver that tethers us to something safe and important – at the very least, to a trace of humanity that proves there is a “you” communicating with them, whether the “you” is yourself or an organization you represent. This book helps you lay the groundwork for using story as a credible tool to connect with your audience, and create a meaning more powerful than mere facts could ever do.

If there’s one thing I learned on The Wild Salmon Cycle – there are no shortage of meaningful stories when it comes to wild salmon, throughout their natural range stretching from Inuvik, NWT to Los Angeles, CA. Whether it was an elder of the Gwich’in people of Tetlit Zheh (Fort MacPherson, NWT) on Nagwichoo tshik (Peel River) – see post “No one ever asked…” – or, oil riggers from Texas that I met in a roadside rest area near Denali National Park in Alaska (they were off to fish salmon on the Kenai Peninsula and each handed me $100 to support the ride), or a homeless fellow in a wheel chair in San Francisco – there are fantastic salmon stories out there.

I’ve sub-titled this blog “what’s your salmon story?” for a reason. There is some scientific research – data, charts and graphs, and the like – that comes out and I think: “hmmm that’s interesting”. For example, bears and salmon in the trees (carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis). However, it’s people’s connection to salmon – their stories – that are important and essential, and, that may very well blaze a path to get out of this quagmire.

What if we had a citizen’s assembly on wild salmon?

No one ever asked…

On the first leg of my bicycle trip – The Wild Salmon Cycle – I rode the Dempster Highway from Inuvik, Northwest Territories to Dawson City, Yukon. I’m not sure if it was the smartest idea to select one of the most challenging roads to ride on my planned route of the time – however, I had to start somewhere.

I remember initially finding out that there were Pacific salmon in the Mackenzie River – it was sometime in the late 1990s. When I decided to do the Wild Salmon Cycle I got several surprised comments from people such as: “why the hell are you starting in Inuvik… isn’t that in the Arctic?”

Or something along the lines of: “there’s salmon in the Arctic?”

I did a bit of research and didn’t really find much other than stats that tracked the few salmon that migrated up the Mackenzie River – specifically some chum in the Peel River, a large western tributary of the Mackenzie that runs through the eastern Yukon.

The map that really set my mind running and eventually culminated in the Wild Salmon Cycle was this map showing the range of Pacific salmon in North America produced in the late 1990s by the enviro-based organization Ecotrust in their book “Salmon Nation“:

One of the stories circulating as I set out on the ride was that due to climate change/warming trends, some Pacific salmon were colonizing streams east of the Mackenzie and were moving east across the Arctic. When I heard this story I had a couple of questions:

1. Had anyone really looked before? There’s a difference between “we were always looking and never saw any salmon'”and “we had a long time assumption that no salmon were there and then when we actually went and looked we found some salmon –  gee this is amazing they must be moving east…”

2. Had anyone asked the people that have been there for eons?

It was late July when I arrived in Inuvik and on my first night in town, the sun set to just a small sliver along the horizon at midnight before coming back up again. I distinctly remember finally falling asleep in my tent that first night in Inuvik around 2 a.m. and hearing kids out playing – why not, the sun was up? As I set out riding down the Dempster – read the stories in forthcoming book (i.e. what the hell was he thinking?) – I reached the Peel River crossing. It was quite late in the day – almost midnight – but still full daylight.

I managed to make the last ferry across the river for the night. On the ferry, I met one of the crewmen a local First Nation fellow from the nearby community of Fort MacPherson. He asked lots of questions and laughed a lot with his toothless grin. He told me to go stay in his fishing cabin. He pointed it out from the ferry and told me the door was open. Beat setting up the tent in the oppressive black-out of mosquitoes.

The mosquitoes were so bad that I was riding in 30 degree Celsius (about 90 F) weather with my rain gear on and duct tape on the sleeves. Uphills were torture, not just because it was gravel, and I was overloaded with gear, and I was not in great shape (yet) – but more because the mosquitoes would descend on me in layers. I would grit my teeth – literally – so that I didn’t have insect lunch on every breath. I was nervous that with all the hard breathing through my nose I’d suck mosquitoes into my sinuses – thank ghad for nose hairs…

It was horrendous – until the wind blew… then I could actually enjoy the views.

After spending the night in the cabin, and realizing that it was tougher to kill all the buzzing divebombers before falling asleep – then in a tent. I woke up and walked down to the river. I saw a lady in a canoe checking her fishing nets. I asked her if she minded if I took some pictures.

“Not at all” she told me in her thick northern accent. She was an elder from the nearby community, in her 70s. And here she was on her own hauling in the net from her canoe with some pretty darn big fish. I asked her about salmon, and whether she caught them in her nets.

“oh yeah, all the time” she explained.

“For how long?” I asked.

“Always” she said, “my grandmother used to catch them too.”

I told her about this theory that more salmon were showing up in the Arctic, and moving east across the Arctic.

“oh, they’ve always been here…. it’s just that no one ever asked.”