Giving & Taking Life in Pacific Coastal Forests
The other day, I chanced upon a teachable moment with my 4-year-old son. I took him and our dog Shiva to Bright Angel Park. It’s an amazing local park here in the Cowichan Valley of Vancouver Island (BC).
To my surprise, there was still evidence of this year’s salmon run all over the banks of the Koksilah River. The fish carcasses were scattered across the ground. We even witnessed a number of eagles busy salvaging the remains (in case you were wondering, it doesn’t smell pleasant🤢)!
A Remarkable Cycle
We took a new side path and found a floodplain which had collected tons of struggling salmon during the recent high rains. We were aghast, and Shiva was delighted, to find nearly 100 salmon carcasses lying on the gravel. It looked pretty morbid, for sure.
Believe it or not, the more carcasses around after the annual Pacific Salmon Run, the better! At least that’s usually the case. So long as they died after spawning, and not from industrial chemical leaching.
When many salmon wash up along the river, it indicates that a high number of them have returned to spawn that year. This implies that many of the salmon cohort they were born in survived long enough to reproduce this year. It’s estimated that less than 1% of Pacific salmon make it to reproductive maturity.
Salmon Live An Epic Life
North American Pacific Salmon (of which there are 5 species) are hatched in freshwater. When they grow strong enough, they migrate hundreds of kilometres to their feeding grounds in the ocean, where they live for 2-7 years, depending on the species. At the end of life, their final journey is to return to the very same stream they came from. Sometimes the very same gravel bed (😮!), where they spawn the next generation of salmon.
After returning to freshwater, they don’t eat for the rest of their lives, and expend all their energy swimming upstream and converting body fat to reproductive cells. Then they die on the banks of their home stream. After they die, the salmon carcasses become food for eagles, bears, wolves, and other species that feed along these streams.
What doesn’t get eaten nourishes the soil and water after decomposing. So if there are a ton of salmon carcasses on the banks, many creatures will eat well this year. Including humans of course! Although humans will fish for the salmon either in the ocean or in the estuaries, where salmon first enter the freshwater from the ocean.
Just Another Critical Species at Risk
In the coastal areas bordering the North Pacific, salmon are a crucial species both ecologically and economically. Surprise, surprise! Because of their high economic value and ecological symbiosis, our sacred salmon are at risk (see below).
What Does It All Matter To A Little Boy In The Park?
All of this information had to be modified into words that mean something to a 4-year-old. I feel that it’s so important for my little guy to gain an understanding of these miraculous phenomena, so that he gains a connection to the animals and the land that we rely on. Ultimately, I want him to be guided by the truth that maintaining a healthy Earth is the only possible avenue for a functioning society and a sustainable economy.
Our conversation went something like this:
Sol: Why did they die?
Me: They died after making more baby salmon. That’s their job. To come back home and lay eggs. When their job is done they can rest.
Sol: Oh. Where did they go?
Me: Well, they actually started from here! Then, when they got big and strong enough, they swam all the way out to the ocean. After a while, when they got older, they decided to swim back home to their river to make their babies.
Sol: Oh. What happens to them on the beach?
Me: Well, when the salmon die, they give food to lots of animals around here. Like those eagles!👆🤩 Listen. That’s the sound of the eagles calling out!
The eagles, bears, and even cougars will all feed off the salmon during the winter. They eat the salmon remains while there isn’t much other food for them. And even after the animals are done, there’ll still be some nutrients left. What’s left of the salmon will eventually break down and feed the trees here too!
Sol: Oh. Even Shiva likes them! Can we have our snack now?
But Salmon Sushi Is My Favorite! What Can I Do?
Ugh, me too. It’s sooo good.
Thankfully, there are things you can do and look for, that will empower you to decide for yourself. In my research, I’ve discovered a few warnings and indicators. For instance, avoid salmon sushi unless the restaurant can verify the source. Wild Alaskan salmon seems to be the choice for quality and sustainability. This also means however, that it goes for a higher price.
But consider this: sushi should probably be regarded as the luxury indulgence it is. As a result, we should try eating it less often. So when we do, we can potentially afford the sustainable price tag. On the flip side, you can eat vegetarian sushi as often as you please! I haven’t yet heard of yams or cucumber landing on the endangered species list.😅 See if veggie sushi can satisfy your cravings at least half of the time.
In my opinion, the best way to ensure that your salmon is sustainably sourced, is to buy the salmon from a local grocery store that can verify the source. You can also try to prepare your own sushi. Admittedly, it’s a little intimidating at first, but it can make for an exciting dinner adventure!
Seafood Watch is a great resource for checking the sustainability of seafood by species. Ocean Wise has a similar search option. They offer a certification symbol that signifies the fish you’re buying is “ocean-friendly.” The symbol differs from country to country, but the font is consistent, so look for something similar to the image below.
If you don’t see any Ocean Wise symbols in your local grocer, ask them if they’re aware of it. It just might be a selling point for them, as sustainably-minded people may choose these options first. You can offer them the website link and tell them how it affects what you buy. Clearly, we’re all in this together and our choices do have an impact.
Like the fish, forests, and eagles, we’re also part of the vast ecological system. Our sacred salmon are a crucial element of the North American West Coast. Both for the environment and our economy. So let’s do our best to find a good balance between both these impactful parts of our lives.
This way, in 7 generations time, people will still be able to enjoy high-quality salmon sushi at their favourite Japanese restaurant.😉 We can totally eat and appreciate our salmon, while still maintaining the ecological balance with our environment.
Editing by Marc-Antoni Tarondo