From the archives: Swimming the Salmon Home

From the archives: Swimming the Salmon Home

from the NEW YORK TIMES, Sept 26, 2003

Robin Barefield photo

ON an overcast afternoon, eight snorkel divers and two guides — all of us encased in snug, full-body wet suits — gathered under a logging bridge on Vancouver Island in British Columbia and waded into the fast-rushing Campbell River. We took a few moments to acclimatize in the shallows, hyperventilating a little as the glacier-born river flooded our suits.
The women had removed their earrings; trout passing through the river tend to strike at anything shiny, whatever flesh it may be attached to. After a bit of low comedy involving the cumbersome fins and the current, I pushed out into the main flow, looked down and swallowed my breath again. A few feet in front of me was a salmon the size of a dancer’s leg. Tail forked, flanks rust-red, it tracked laterally across the river, whip-cracking the muscle of its body. This tyee was probably five or six years old and at least 35 pounds. The size was to some extent an illusion; but even allowing for the double magnification of the water and the mask, it was one big fish. And it wasn’t alone. Looming out of the shadows now were others, kings and cohos and the odd straggling pink, each salmon churning upstream, a flash of biological imperative in my peripheral vision.
It’s a strange way to see a game fish: not on a dinner plate or at the end of a fishing line, but alive and free and in your face.
The annual salmon spawn really is one of those mysterious, natural spectacles worthy of the build up. Almost half a million Pacific salmon return to the Campbell each year from the ocean, inching back to their natal streams, to the precise football-size patch of riverbed where, for them, the whole plot began.
They come in succession: the humpbacked pinks, the silver-sided coho and eventually the fiercely hooked-nosed chum. But most impressive of all is the tyee, the coastal Indians’ word for chief, a title Chinook salmon earn when they hit 30 pounds. These are the fish that have given the Campbell a reputation for almost unmatched salmon fishing — at least until recently.
Beginning in the early 1990’s, loss of habitat, overfishing and, perhaps, climate change turned the slow depletion in Pacific salmon stocks into a crisis gravely, recalling what happened to the cod stocks of the East Coast. Strict fishing regulations were imposed on most salmon rivers in the Pacific Northwest and southern British Columbia.
Almost all salmon fishing in the Campbell, therefore, is now catch-and-release. But an alternative has grown in its place. If you can’t take salmon out of the river, nothing says you can’t climb in there with them.
The Pacific salmon in this stretch of the Campbell River would all be dead within a month. Unlike their Atlantic cousins, returning Pacific salmon die after just one reproductive season. Once they hit fresh water, the fuse is ignited. They stop eating; the only fuel available to them is their own bodies, which they quickly deplete. Battered by rocks and snacked on in passing by lazy seals, they’re soon marked with open wounds. Fungus grows in the wounds. And the once gleaming silver flanks begin to fuzz over with gray. The fish start to leave bits of themselves in the water, to mix with the milt and the roe. In few other places in nature do sex and death so explicitly commingle.
The number of coho in the river on this day last October was surprising; they don’t generally spawn in deep water. But because there had been so little rain, they weren’t moving into the tributaries, Catherine Temple, founder of Paradise Found Adventure Tours, explained about the near-drought conditions on this late-season day. Typically, rainwater in the river is a signal to the fish that it’s time to move out into the spawning beds.
Ms. Temple’s six-year-old company bills itself as the only one in North America that offers snorkeling-with-salmon tours. (And a search of the Internet seems to support that claim.) Which isn’t to say that individuals around here hadn’t thought of trying it earlier. The first probably was the Canadian outdoorsman and writer Roderick Haig-Brown, who in the 1950’s donned a mask and snorkel to observe the effects of a new dam on the behavior of the fish and, not incidentally, to see where they were hiding (he was a fisherman, first and foremost). In the 1970’s and 80’s, locals started getting into the act. Only the unusual clarity of the river makes this sport possible: on some days, in bright sunshine, fish can be seen finning 30 feet away.
On this day, the big pink run was largely over and the chum run had yet to begin. Next to the tyee, the chum are the most arresting fish in the Campbell, with their lantern jaws and guard-dog teeth, which nature starts to manufacture the moment the fish enters fresh water, a signal that it will soon be needing weaponry if it is to have a chance in the territorial skirmishes.
”The chum won’t move in till the chinook are gone because they’re in direct competition for the beds,” Ms. Temple said. ”And the coho didn’t come till the pinks were gone. Apparently they don’t like their smell.”
At one point, to better appreciate what the salmon were up against, I spun around and kicked back against the current, hard, until my legs burned. I still lost ground. But I noticed, for the first time, some salmon drifting downriver with me. And the Sisyphean nature of their task sank in: a spawning salmon cannot rest without backsliding at an alarming rate; and yet, it has to rest. So its labor becomes two strokes forward, a stroke and a half back, for days, weeks, months.

A guide, Jamie Turko, grew up on Vancouver Island. As a boy, he and his pals would float like torpedoes down the whole navigable length of the river, a 45-minute run. Back then, the fish were so plentiful they would routinely collide with him. Not so now. ”I’ve only had two bump into me so far this year,” he said.

Fish stocks have recovered somewhat in the last three years but are only about 60 percent of the levels they were a decade ago. And though the tyee are still big enough to set the eyes of most visiting fishermen spinning, they’re not nearly as big as they used to be. It was not uncommon, Mr. Turko said, to have 200-pound salmon 500 or 600 years ago. (The modern record is 122 pounds.) If you belonged to the local Tyee club in the early 1950’s, you would routinely bag fish in the 65-pound range; now the biggest are pushing 50. Because no limits were traditionally imposed on how large a fish you could take from the river — only how small — the biggest tyee were removed from the gene pool. Only in the last few years have maximum limits been imposed as well as minimums. But it’s too late: the really big fish are probably gone forever.

One way to approach snorkeling with the salmon of the Campbell is to think of it as a metaphor for an ancient relationship. People in these parts have relied on salmon as a food source for as long as there have been people in these parts. Salmon rivers determined settlement patterns. To the Indians of the region, salmon were and remain sacred. (The Haida people believed the Pacific salmon were actually a race of subterranean humans who took the form of fish when they rose out of the ground and into the oceans.) ”Much of their behavior remains cloaked in mystery still,” Mr. Haig-Brown wrote of the salmon in the Campbell. ”Where exactly in the ocean do they go, when they leave the streams where they were born? How do they find their way home? What is the immediate purpose of this schooling in the canyon pool at what must be almost the end of their journey?”

Floating down the river, elbow to elbow with others, like part of an advancing line of rugby players, the snorkel diver is struck by an inevitable question: Can this activity be good for the fish?

The wager all eco-tour operators make is that whatever impact their visitors have on nature is more than offset by the impact nature makes on them, that a renewed respect for the chain of life and a diminished desire to interfere with natural processes is absorbed and passed on. It’s not clear if or how humans in the river affect salmon. There is some evidence that the fish can at least smell large mammals in the water and that they are sensitive to electromagnetic changes of the sort a human might generate.

”The main concern, however, is that the added stress of people’s floating down the river will cause the fish to die of exhaustion too soon, before they reach their spawning beds,” Ms. Temple said. ”But the fish don’t seem to be affected.”

Dave Ewart, manager of the Quinsam River Hatchery, which has been doing fish counts for more than 20 years, gives Ms. Temple the benefit of the doubt. ”I’m sure, just as with killer-whale watching, there will come a time when it’s just too much, that there will be a breaking point,” he said. ”But my experience is that when it rains and the river comes up and it’s time to spawn, nothing stops these fish. They’ll go wherever they have to go.”

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