Phil Hoose is a Newbery and National Book Award-winning author. He has worked in a variety of roles for the Conservancy for more than 35 years. Phil currently focuses on Canada.
Within the Great Bear Rainforest, nearly every living being has reason to be thankful for the great runs of silver-flanked salmon that surge through forested streams each year about this time. Five salmon species — Pink, Coho, Chum, Sockeye and Chinook — tie together a food chain consisting of nearly 150 species, including humans.
In the British Columbia coastal community of Bella Bella, members of the Heiltsuk First Nation dine on salmon all year long, preserving the summer catch for the fall and winter months. “We smoke them until they’re rock hard,” says Heiltsuk community leader and director of Coastwatch, William Housty. “Then we can store them in an airtight space and boil them up later. It’s also great to put salmon meat on sticks and barbeque it, and then freeze it or jar it. Everybody around here eats salmon all year long. My grandparents probably eat salmon four days a week. We simply could not survive without it.”
Heiltsuks have many ways of honoring and thanking the salmon. Some people throw back the first salmon they catch as a gesture of respect. “This encourages the rest of the salmon to return, knowing that they will be treated with respect by the ones harvesting them,” says Housty. “If we do not honor the salmon, they simply don’t return.”
This gratitude inspires Heiltsuk leaders to ensure that future generations understand, value and conserve salmon in the ancient, proven ways. “Our theory has always been, ‘take few, leave lots.’ We know that if we take care of the resource, it takes care of us,” adds Housty.
A Nature Conservancy partnership with local communities in Canada — SEAS (Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards) Initiative—seeks to encourage this link between nature, culture, food and the future.
Led by chiefs, elders and local resource managers, future stewards and leaders gain insights into the important role salmon plays for their people and their world. The SEAS Initiative works with First Nation youth from grade school to college to foster leadership and give young people hands-on experiences in nature.
Participants learn that salmon hatch in fresh water, but migrate to the open ocean, where they mature in salt water. In late summer, they return to spawn in the very same stream where they hatched. The fish gather there, waiting, females laden with thousands of eggs, until the first rain of the season triggers the urge to move. Thousands of fish surge forward as one, powering upstream, leaping over obstacles such as rocks and downed branches. Sometimes the streams become clogged with fish, causing a traffic tie-up and forming a pavement of salmon. The fish forgo food, and rest only rarely, surrendering everything to the impulse to reach spawning grounds and reproduce. Those that complete the journey lose up to a third of their weight.
SEAS students and interns also begin to understand how salmon link together many ecological processes within the Great Bear.
The Salmon Forest
Salmon runs bring the Great Bear Rainforest exploding to life. Birds and mammals cluster along the churning streams, waiting in ambush for the feast of concentrated protein and fat that a salmon meal delivers. Bears and wolves wade in and drag thrashing fish from the stream, then take them into the forest and lie down to eat, usually consuming only part of the fish and leaving the rest on the ground. Eagles rush in to snatch up the carcass and carry it to a tree limb, where they tear away sections of meat.
Wolves snap off a salmon’s head and digest only the brain, leaving the claw-gashed flanks and tail behind. “Wolves are smart,” says Housty. “By just eating the brain they get concentrated protein without getting tapeworm, or a jaw full of fish bones.” Mink and river otters vie with quarreling gulls for abandoned carcasses. Ravens hop forward and delicately pluck the eyes from a carcass before setting to work on the rest. And the leftovers? That’s for the ultimate consumers — beetles and maggots.
The energy from hundreds of thousands of decomposing streamside salmon is absorbed into moss and taken up as nitrogen through the roots of forest trees. This phenomenal nitrogen infusion gives rise to cathedral-like stands of streamside cedar. Studies of tree rings have shown that red cedar trees put on more wood in years of abundant salmon.
Just as bison provided so many needs for plains tribes in the United States, Pacific red cedar has traditionally provided shelter, transportation, warmth, clothing and much more for First Nations within the Great Bear Rainforest.
“Our people call the red cedar ‘The Tree of Life,’ says Heiltsuk carver Ian Reid. “That’s because it has sustained us for so many years.”
Especially in this season of harvest, we remember that even these mighty trees, like so much else in the Great Bear Rainforest, are sustained by the ultimate giver — the salmon.
[Image: A brown bear catches a king salmon. Image source: Amy Vitale]