To be honest, I really didn't know much at all about Pacific salmon, or salmon generally, before I left Australia a few months ago. I knew that bears scooped them up from rivers as they headed upstream. I knew that the island I lived on — Bruny Island in Tasmania's Derwent River Estuary — was surrounded by tens of thousands of salmon, all cramped into what were, essentially, fish feed lots. So yeah, I didn't know a whole lot.
What I've learned over the past few months is that Pacific salmon really are the life blood of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Salmon are a keystone species in the fragile and complex ecosystems of the North Pacific oceans and the rivers and tributaries that flow into it. Not only are humans dependent on these amazing animals as a food source, but so are bears, eagles, orcas, many seabirds and — believe it or not — even trees.
When people talk about Pacific salmon they're actually talking about five different species — pink (humpies), sockeye (reds), chinook (kings or springs), chum (dogs) and silver (cohos). Each species varies in its appearance, distribution, behaviour and taste. So far on the trip I think I've treated to three of the five species — whether smoked, cooked, or eaten raw as sashimi.
Countless communities across the entire region I've travelled live by the salmon. Virtually everyone I met knew whether the salmon were "running", and most knew whether the signalled a good year or a bad one. Basically, a salmon run refers to the annual migration of salmon upstreamwhere they move from saltwater to freshwater in order to spawn — a natural marvel if I've ever seen one. What's more, these fish which may have spent up to three of four years out in the ocean, return to the exact same stream in which they spawned. Nature sure knows how to impress.
Salmon became an integral part of my travels pretty much from the get go. I was gifted it on numerous occasions. I would watch in disbelief as these salmon, slowly but surely, made their way up rivers that I rode over or creeks that I stopped by. I struggled for weeks and months to remember the names and nicknames of all five species. I held my first salmon in Skagway, feeling the pure power in its muscular strength as it wriggled from my grasp. On the Alaskan public ferry from Juneau to Prince Rupert I met three sisters (and an adopted fourth) who were making a documentary about salmon and the threats of proposed mines in three river systems. And, for the last five days, I was lucky enough to hitch a ride on a commercial fishing boat as I made my way south from Haida Gwaii to my current location on Quadra Island. The impression that these experiences have left on me is both a mixture of complete awe and undeniable fear. The awe stems from the complexity of ecosytems and foodwebs that nature has created. The fear emanates from observing our ability as humans to unravel the maze of threads that tie these complicated systems together.
I met Alison, Hannah and Ilsa — along with their adopted sister for the project Cheyenne — as the Alaskan ferry slowly weaved its way through a maze of remote islands in Alaska's Southeast. The three sisters are all fishermen (or fisherwomen?) who have spent countless hours working in Southeast Alaska. With Cheyenne in tow, their intention is to create a documentary film called Sisters and Rivers about the threats posed to the Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers — rivers that all originate in British Colombia and flow out into Southeast Alaskan waters — by proposed open-pit gold and copper mines. Their objective was to talk to communities and the industries that define many of them — namely commercial fishing — and consider the consequences and profound impacts of future decisions. The girls were a classic bunch, down to earth and friendly as they come. They'd been on the road for some time, all cooped up in a van together, and it sounded like they were having a really great time. I would have liked to spend a little more time with them to hear the stories they had gleaned so far, but their stop was only six hours away and so our time together was short lived.
A few weeks later, after strolling the docks of the marina in Masset, Haida Gwaii, I eventually found the man I was looking for. As it turned out, we even shared the same name. Tom Gray, a commercial fisherman for over forty five years, was generous enough to let me hitch a ride on the Pearl Sea on his return voyage home to Vancouver Island. The Pearl Sea was a beautiful old wooden fishing boat that had stood the test of time. "Because I had the benefit of patience and time, I was able to get the best materials I could possibly find to build her" Tom told me proudly. The boat was built by a friend of his and the attention to detail is undeniable. Comprised of red cedar, yellow cedar and some fir for good measure, the Pearl Sea has stood up to anything the Pacific Ocean has thrown its way.
All I had to do in return for the five day trip was "Dress a few fish and drink a whole lotta coffee." I pretended to know what Tom meant when he talked about "dressing" a fish, making it clear I'd never even set foot on a commercial fishing boat before. "You'll be fine." replied an unphased Tom.
I awoke to the grumbling of the hardy diesel engine before the sun had poked its head up over the horizon. The Pearl Sea slowly glided away from the dock as the still, glassy water reflected our surroundings as well as any mirror I'd ever gazed into. The placid waters didn't last long. Before I knew it we were out in unprotected waters and I quickly started to feel like I was a little out of my depth. I've spent most of my life by the ocean and I feel it is an integral part of the person I am today. But all this time in saltwater has passed in close proximity to land — a few kilometres offshore and it feels like a different world. Choppy, short-period windswells bucked the boat back and forth violently. Tom, a veteran of these waters, was completely unphased.
I was dressed in a pair of waterproof overalls — typical fishing gear — and did my best to focus on the horizon. We were on a troll boat — a type of fishing that instead of using large nets uses multiple lines with many lures attached to tempt fish to bite. That day we were chasing silver salmon, or cohos, for Tom's winter food supply. Having finished the commercial end of the season, it was time for Tom to fill his own freezer.
Before long the first coho was off the line and into the back of the boat. Trolling is arguably one of the most humane ways to fish commercially. Instead of being choked to death by a gillnet boat, or crush in a seine boat's net, fish on troll boats are basically beaten over the head once they're taken off the line, resulting in a quick death. Sure it ain't the most glamorous way to kill something, but for someone like me who's mostly removed from the processing of animals that I eat, I gained a lot from the experience.
In between bouts of fairly violent seasickness, it was my job to dress the fish. Dressing involves removing the innards of the fish so it's ready to be put on ice, delivering the best possible product to consumers with ever-greater expectations. After taking a filleting knife, I would first remove the gills, before making a cut in the underside of the salmon to remove its inner workings and the remaining blood. This ensures a longer shelf-life in the ice and prevents the fish from rotting. What I noticed, and what we later discussed, was the remarkable colours on the salmon's body, particularly up near the dorsal fin. Vivid blues, purples and greens contrasted wonderfully with the silver scales of the coho salmon. As I dressed these fish, these colours were again balanced by the bright orange flesh that comprised the interior of the animal. We bagged about thirty fish that day, and I can safely say that I was wrecked — the recently vacant stomach didn't really help either.
The fishing completed, we still had another four days left on our journey south. With my bike safely strapped to the roof of the boat, I played countless games of solitaire, read all Tom's National Geographics from cover to cover, watched Orcas surface alongside the boat and bears stroll along vacant beaches and took shifts steering the boat — "just don't hit anything, ok?" The Pearl Sea darted its way in and out of a labyrinth of straits, passages, sounds and narrows that comprised Canada's section of what's generally known as the Inside Passage. These waters were, for the most part, very well protected and we only had small sections in exposed waters. I was pretty bloody thankful for that.
When I wasn't entertaining myself, I leaped at the opportunity to learn as much as I could about salmon in my time with an old, wise sea dog. As it turned out I couldn't have picked a better captain. As well as being a commerical fisherman, or perhaps more accurately because of it, Tom has spent many winters teaching a course on Salmon and the related ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest at the University of British Colombia in Vancouver. A self described "loose cannon", Tom has never been to university and hence his course is technically not an accredited one. But if forty five years out fishing doesn't teach you a lot about salmon and their behaviour, then I don't know what does.
Tom's rogue status has meant that wherever he goes — fisheries meetings, guest appearances at conferences run by the David Suzuki foundation or university lecturing — there's "always someone there to keep an eye on me". Tom prides himself on telling people the truth, even if it's not what they want to hear.
Here's a question for you:
"Why are salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest undergoing a serious decline?"
You probably don't know the answer, but if you had to take a shot in the dark what would you guess?
A few months ago I probably would have gone with over-fishing — makes sense, right?
Turns out, in this case, that I would have been wrong. It's this dominant myth — at least in Pacific Northwest salmon populations — that has plagued the commercial fishing industry for decades. Fisherman like Tom have defied environmentalists on this point by using the comparison between fisheries in the Pacific Northwest — which are in severe decline — and the Alaskan fisheries, which are having record runs in recent years. The Alaskan fleet is much, much larger than that of the Pacific Northwest, yet salmon populations are as strong as ever? Tom Gray, along with many other fisherman, have argued ad nauseum that environmentalists ignored what is arguably the most important factor: habitat.
Alaska has made signficant inroads into protecting vast swathes of land under strict wilderness conditions. That means no mines and no clearfelling of forests. Salmon populations in these areas are, by all accounts, flourishing. Coincidence? Tom was ready to tell me why he didn't think so.
When I was on Haida Gwaii I bore witness to the decimation of old growth forests. If I thought Haida Gwaii was bad, yesterday's journey down the Johnson Strait alongside Vancouver Island was a real eye-opener. The utter devastation wreaked on endless valleys and hillsides was immense. Forests had been, and continue to be decimated. Everywhere I looked I could see recent clearcuts or regrowth from clearcut. Not only has this destroyed complex terrestrial ecosystems, I was beginning to learn about the effects it was having on marine life.
When you cut down trees that have stood for hundreds and hundreds of years, you greatly impact what they stand upon: soil. Much of Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii and the rest of the Pacific Northwest has very steep terrain — picture mountains dropping off straight into the ocean. Soil stabilisation occurs of hundreds of years, as old trees bury roots deeper into the ground, essentially providing the foundations for study soil. When you cut old trees down where does the soil go? Gravity takes its course and soil migrates downhill. The problem here is that sediment eventually runs off into creeks, streams and tributaries, smothering salmon eggs that are yet to spawn. It also affects nutrient exchange, the temperature and water flow of creeks and rivers, and a whole lot of other crucial factors no doubt.
Earlier I mentioned that trees depend on salmon. "How does that work?" I wondered. A big salmon is packed full of nutrients, and when a bear walks off into the forest with a recent catch chances are he might drop a bit of salmon here or there. An eagle might accidentally do the same. In addition, not all salmon that enter the streams have enough stamina to make the whole migration — natural selection chimes in. All these dead carcasses contribute to nutrient input in these ecosystems, and there's been studies that highlight the profound impact salmon populations have on the health of surrounding forest ecosystems. So even if you don't clearfell the whole damn hill, you're condemning that ecosystem to a bleak and uncertain future.
The threads extend further. I was lucky enough to meet Oriana, and after chatting to her about her job at an expedition company, she excitedly showed me some incredible videos she'd filmed with some scientists that were on one of the expeditions. One interview with an orca biologist discussed his ability to identify many different orcas individually, just by the calls they make. He went into great detail about their complex communication systems and social structures. On the Pearl Sea I was lucky enough to see some of these magnificent creatures up close, and their tendency for play and their innate curiosity about we humans was incredible to watch. These animals too are threatened by collapsing salmon populations. Different pods of orcas specialise in hunting different prey. Some target seals, but the southern pods around BC tend to have a preference for salmon. And Tom's years of observation in these waters tell him that they're struggling. Walking through a clearfell forest, never in my wildest dreams would I have considered the affect it was having on a cetacean hunting kilometres offshore.
Small fishing communities in BC, Tom tells me, have been stripped bare. Subject to vicitimisation by countless governments and environmental organisations, there were attempts to guilt-trip them out of jobs. Now there's no fish left. And no fishing boats either. Tom used to fish around Vancouver Island, but now makes the five day journey north to Haida Gwaii every summer to Area F, where he is allocated a licence. Haida Gwaii's fisheries have also been severely affected, but not to the catastrophic levels further south. These days Tom, and his partner Pete on Blaze fish for the love of it. They're financially stable enough not to need to anymore, but they can't seem to stop. Pete's getting close to eighty years old and he still pulls fifteen hour days on the boat. Something tells me these guys won't stop until they're physically incapable of continuing. It reminds me of those old tyre covers I used to see back home: "Fish to Live, Live to Fish".
Environmentalism is a funny thing in a lot of ways. It's also a fairly new "discipline" of study, if you call it that. But there's problems here. Why don't we pay more attention to the man who's been observing these salmon and their habitat for forty five years? Because he doesn't have a university degree? People like Tom are frequently ignored for the dominant environmental theme of the day. And quite often it amounts to tunnel vision. It's in the interests of people like Pete and Tom for salmon populations to flourish, not decline. Why would they want to jeopardise their livelihood?
I don't seek to criticise environmentalism per se. But more to consider the implications of what happens when we all jump on a bandwagon and decide to figuratively beat the crap out of a certain group or commerical interest. These issues are nuanced, and deserve some sort of balance. Academic scientific analysis has it's merits, but so too does years and years of careful observation. Tom and Pete have that in spades, and when it comes to trusting anyone on how to solve this immense problem facing the Pacific Northwest, this time I'm listening the trusty old timers.
Read more about Sisters and Rivers here.