The Salmon Cycle
I had never been so excited to see a dead fish.
I hopped off the boat for our break at the port after a successful sail from Ketchikan to Juneau, Alaska and I see a beautiful carcass of a chum salmon floating in the water.
Immediately, memories flood back of my years spent in Oregon working for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, monitoring salmon populations which involved searching high and low for dead fish.
I excitedly grabbed a hook, brought it ashore and pointed out its characterizing zebra stripes. The in-tact adipose fin showed that it was a wild rather than a hatchery-raised fish and the hook-nose and dog teeth indicated that spawning season had begun.
The stench that hit our noses made it obvious that this body was in the process of rotting but I used that time to tell how this is more than just a dead fish, it's the return of the lifeline that keeps Southeast Alaskan riparian zones so healthy, nutrient-rich and full of wildlife.
The lifecycle of a pacific salmon is no less than remarkable. Born in freshwater, it fights to survive from the very moment it is hatched from specially-dug nests called redds. Young salmon head downstream every spring while imprinting the chemical memory of the specific river from which they hatched. They spend one to seven years in the ocean, depending on the species, growing fat and full of nutrients on the thousand mile plus journey around the Gulf of Alaska.
When the biological clock says it’s time, they head back to the region they came from and call upon their memory to return to their old stomping grounds. A change in salinity as they near the freshwater of their home stream triggers an immense physiological change as they transform colors and body shapes. They grow gigantic teeth and put all their energy into developing reproductive parts, swimming upstream to find the perfect real estate to hatch the future generation of salmon.
After the female digs a redd and releases her thousands of eggs, a male fish will release his milt to fertilize them. The mother fish will hover over the redd, protecting her eggs from predators until the natural cycle of all pacific salmon is complete.
She will rot from outside in, depositing her dead body and all the nutrients she along with the other decaying salmon have brought from the ocean into the water that feeds her eggs, the trees and the many scavengers looking to feast.
Of the multiple thousands of eggs that are fertilized, only a few will survive to return as adult spawners. The rest are meals for other fish, birds, humans, otters, Orcas, bears, eagles and even Sitka black-tailed deer.
This week was a testament to this miraculous journey. We got to Fox Creek in the Idaho inlet and saw spawning in action. The folks I led received an excited explanation of salmon in all their glory. Later that week, we got an incredible opportunity to watch a mother brown bear skillfully fish for herself and her two awaiting cubs. And lest we forget about the ever-present beauty of the enormous, nutrient-rich trees that owe their impressive growth rates to the returning salmon.
What an incredible job, I get to teach people about this amazing cycle and share in the awe of watching it all happen.