Bring back the salmon

by Celia Brauer

Salmon Song 1 by Celia Brauer

I will never forget my first encounter with “real” salmon. It was the late ‘70s and I had just begun a new life in Victoria. Summer turned to fall and the locals were suddenly discussing the return of the salmon to the local streams. As an urban easterner, I was accustomed to getting my salmon from a tin can, not a stream, and local fish were never the subject of casual discussion.

That year, I was to discover what every native west coaster already knows – that the return of these iconic fish draws people from all walks of life to gaze in wonder at their remarkable, annual homecoming.

When I finally viewed the spectacle for myself at Goldstream Park one grey Sunday afternoon, I was not at all prepared. A wide and shallow stream snaked between monstrous evergreens, which had started as seedlings during the Middle Ages. Hordes of people with their kids and dogs swarmed the banks gawking at the water where great numbers of huge, grey, embattled fish flapped pitifully. A few were making an attempt to move upstream and some had already died. This was a far cry from the tasty, orange meat of the lunchtime sandwiches of my youth.

Up to that point, I had not been a particularly fishy person. My dad had grown up near the Baltic Sea and enjoyed smoked fish from the local deli, and my mom cooked some delicious ethnic fish dishes. But beyond that, I had little connection to the sea. Salmon, however, have a way of touching us with their river-to-ocean life cycle and epic return home. I was very moved by my first connection with those half-alive salmon at Goldstream Park, but little did I know it was to be the first of many encounters with this fascinating fish, and that many years later I would start hearing the voices of the salmon from the lost streams of Vancouver in my mind.

Thus began my “real” education into the hook-nose Oncorhynchus. I quickly learned that salmon’s biggest foes were not ocean predators or their own month-long, upstream journey with no food. It was Homo sapiens – king of the resource deplete-ors. As with many of the planet’s wild animals, the history of humans’ actions against these defenseless creatures has not been pretty. By the second half of the 1800’s, the industrial economy had marched across most of North America. Reaching the Pacific Ocean, it very seriously set about laying waste to its tremendous edible bounty. Salmon were a simple catch; all the fishers had to do was grab thousands of fish as they entered the mouths of rivers on their return home.

The pristine wilderness of the coast that had been carefully stewarded by the First Nations for thousands of years was now under the rule of the conquering Europeans, who had a very different set of values. Their worldview originated in an expanding industrial economy where the focus was on material wealth and technological progress. They saw nature as inhospitable, something to be tamed. The idea that healthy ecosystems are the foundation of our economy –“natural capital” – was not considered. The many species of Pacific salmon endured a raft of onslaughts and machines offered a remarkably efficient way to travel and “harvest” millions of fish. There were tales in the 1850’s of the Fraser River smelling very foul as fishermen threw back thousands of sockeye from their massive catches because they favoured the “spring” salmon. This is hard to believe today, as we watch in despair as the sockeye numbers continue to fall.

As more people settled the rich land where streams once flourished, these waterways disappeared one by one, and along with them, their resident fish. The lands occupied by present day Vancouver lost close to 57 salmon streams in less than 50 years. Over time, the remaining streams and rivers became more polluted – first with industrial waste and later with agricultural runoff, sewage, pesticides and other pollutants manufactured by the thousands of humans that occupied the land. In order to prop up an ailing fishery, the governments first set up hatcheries and later, fish farms. Both of these “fix-it” schemes have had mixed results and brought more than their share of illness and fatalities for wild fish while climate change has shrunk and warmed the streams.

In the days before clearcutting and over-fishing, the land breathed with wildlife. Beginning in late summer and extending into the fall, the salmon rivers on the West Coast of North America were packed with returning, adult salmon spawners. The Fraser River, as the largest fresh waterway of them all, drew billions of fish home. In his book, Salmon Without Rivers, Jim Likatowich says that the Pacific salmon appeared on the coast approximately 5,000 years ago and quickly became a rich food staple for the First Nations, who worked out a logical method of ownership of fishing territories by dividing the riverbanks among families. In this way, each family had a clear vested interest in the health of the stream and the resident fish. In essence, they were the stewards of the streams and caretakers of Mother Earth and her creatures. Ceremonies marked the arrival of the first spawners and legends about the salmon people were told around the fires in the winter houses and at potlatches. People also respected the rules and regulations about how to treat the salmon and the water during the different seasons, and anyone who broke those rules was punished by the community. This was the salmon “protocol.”

While this remarkable fish still remains a treasured, wild icon for many on the West Coast, our relationship with salmon bears little, if any, resemblance to that of First Nations tribes. A small number of us fish recreationally and some of us buy fresh fish at a local market. For the majority of us however, our first encounter with salmon is as a cut slab, shrink-wrapped on a styrofoam tray at the supermarket. We still enjoy eating salmon, but the experience of stewarding the fish, caring for the land and paying attention to changes in salmon habitat is all but lost.

Around 2004, I started thinking more about the lost streams of Vancouver. It was as if I were hearing the spirits of the fish that used to live there. I didn’t know why this was happening, but it shouldn’t have been a total surprise. The human body is compromised of 70 percent seawater so how could one not feel the ebb and flow of the creatures of the salt water if one really listened? At the time, local historians and artists like Bruce Macdonald, Terry Glavin and Karen Jameson were writing, talking and even dancing about the lost streams. Over time, I learned about the mighty Fraser River from local teachers like Fin Donnelly, Terry Slack and Stephen Hume. I heard stories from the First Nations about how salmon was respected in their culture and how they stewarded their home streams where they were born and died.

It seemed obvious to me that salmon were no longer a part of our daily lives as they were for the First Nations. And this was clearly why salmon were disappearing. They were no longer part of our culture. We hardly ever visited their environment. They no longer lived in our neighbourhoods so it was inevitable that they would slowly vanish from our hearts and minds. Yes, they have a place in our government systems – in the Department of Fisheries, the Ministry of the Environment and in Parks and Recreation – but the relationship is strained and confused. Our political systems are crude tools for determining the common good of fish and wildlife. After all, fish don’t vote. Nor do they merit a seat at our bargaining tables. Ecosystems and animals in peril have to rely on a small, but growing, body of activists who lobby on their behalf.

While salmon numbers decreased radically in the past, they continue to be under siege today. Populations shrink as the remaining ecosystems disappear to make way for more developments and megaprojects. Pollution is more insidious as untreated toxins infiltrate the remaining waterways through inadequately treated wastewater and farm and urban runoff. Diseases from fish farms pose a strong threat to fish fry; escapees interbreed with wild fish and there is a continued warming of waters from global climate change. The activists tire themselves out, collecting data, creating events and writing petitions. And still our government and much of the public think the fisheries are “managed” just fine. But how can things be different when our worldview still values a dead fish over a live one?

When asked what sustainability meant, I once heard a Carrier Sekani elder say without hesitation that it was the “potlatch.” We have no system that equates with the potlatch in our communities. We have individual drive and will and democratically elected governments. But this does little to save or steward our natural ecosystems. We must return to a more efficient model of conservation – one that involves the community and the governments. A group in Oregon has coined the term “Salmon Nation,” and as more people join that tribe, we will be healthier because what’s good for the salmon is good for us. It will mean more clean, wild ecosystems – non-polluted rivers, a cooler planet and more thoughtful humans with smaller footprints.

In 2004, I created a BC Rivers Day event in Vancouver called the Salmon Celebration. It originated from a wish to honour the memory of the lost salmon streams and return to them the spirit of the salmon. For one afternoon a year, I wanted to put salmon back into our lives and our ceremonies and remove them from government departments where they are “managed.” It’s a small gesture that takes many months of preparation, but it’s the least I can do for this magnificent creature that has offered us sustenance for so many years. Salmon will flourish once again on the coast when we transform our philosophy about where these creatures belong in our world order. They don’t just belong on our dinner table; they should occupy a place of reverence and honour in our society.

It won’t be easy to turn the ship around and bring the salmon back into our hearts and minds. But more understanding of what the wild world means for the health of our communities will certainly help to return this amazing and humble creature into more of our wild rivers where they belong.

Celia Brauer is a writer, artist and a tireless advocate for salmon. She lives in Vancouver.

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