The Death of the Salmon

RODERICK HAIG-BROWNwas born in England and came to Canada to work as a logger in the Northwest. When the opportunity arose for him to stake out his home,he and his wife chose to live on the fringe of the wilderness close beside the Campbell River,with its great seasonal runs of steelhead and salmon.

Do ALL Pacific salmon die after spawning? Yes. Even the pink salmon, after a life of less than two years? Even the great and powerful king salmon? Even the jacks, the precocious males that come back after only one short year in the sea? Yes, they all die. Not a single one of all the hosts upon hosts that come in from the sea lives to spawn a second time.

It is natural for a man to resent this, I suppose, to feel that it is wasteful and shocking, in some way unnatural. Many years ago, when I first came to the rivers of the Pacific salmon, I refused to believe it. After all, some steelhead and Atlantic salmon live to spawn a second time, even a third, fourth, and fifth time. One sees them, bright and clean and strong again, in the rivers after spawning, and one knows that the power of recovery is in them. For years I searched among Pacific salmon for some sign of recovery, for even one fish that seemed to have renewed its grip on life. I did not find it. I have seen chum salmon back in salt water, but invariably they were pathetic, worn-out creatures still in the immediate process of dying. Now I have lived so long with this fact of collective simultaneous death that I no longer resent or question it. Instead, I find it fitting and beautiful, certainly useful in some ways that are not entirely clear, and a yearly occasion of high drama. I am still curious about the manner and meaning of it, but I do not question that it has manner and meaning.

In many ways the short-run rivers are best for watching the spawning salmon. When fish have run several miles upriver from the sea, one expects them to be battered and scarred and weary. But in the short-run rivers it is clear that any changes are in them and of them. One sees everything, from the first arrivals, through all the modifications of color and habit and performance, to the very end.

The actual arrival of a big run of salmon is a surprisingly subtle thing, in spite of the size of the fish and the mass of the schools. One can live right beside the mouth of a stream and hardly know that a run has turned into it. I have sat in an anchored boat at the mouth of the Nimpkish River through a whole afternoon and evening and watched school after school of cohos turn in. The schools were big, sometimes hundreds of fish closely packed, and only a few feet under the surface. Sometimes their passage showed in faint ripples on the surface, more rarely in swirls as they turned in sudden panic. Sometimes a school turned downstream, turned again, and came back. I do not remember that a single fish jumped in the river channel, though there were occasional jumpers to the north, just before the schools turned in. For the most part I was watching only a narrow strip of water, perhaps a hundred feet wide, between the boat and the northern edge of the channel; how many thousands of fish passed around me and behind me, I have no idea. But at the end of it all there was an odd sense of disbelief in the whole affair. There was little or no sign of fish on the rising tide upstream; there was only the visual memory of those hundreds of bright, clean bodies, timid yet purposeful, slipping secretly into the river that had spawned them. Had there really been so many?

THE Campbell is a broad, shallow stream where it passes my house. Thousands of salmon and steelhead run up through that stretch every year, yet I have scarcely ever seen one on its way. The large movements may well be at night, and in daylight it would be natural enough for fish to pass stealthily through such an open, shallow reach, but it is still a surprise to find them suddenly in the pools farther upstream: a few hundred pink salmon toward the end of July, the big king salmon by the first week of August. Over the deep, strong water of the pools they are not afraid to show themselves, the pinks breaking the surface like rising trout, the kings rolling out and shouldering over with a power that breaks the water white and starts echoes from the banks.

At this stage there is nothing confiding about the fish. They have their full strength, they are not ripe for spawning, and they are keyed to protect themselves from whatever dangers may threaten. The silvery brightness of salt water is gone, but change toward the spawning shape and color is gradual, almost imperceptible at first, in these early fish. One fishes a fly over them and among them in search of steelhead, cutthroat, or early-running coho, grateful for the magnificent way they show themselves, occasionally casting to cover one that is rolling persistently in the same place. Nothing comes of it except the rare, breathtaking coincidence of rolling side and drifting fly. But who is to say that nothing more than this is possible?

Later, with the cold, wet winds of early November, all this is changed. The fish are in the shallows now, active all across them. The gravel is loosened, freshly gray and brown where it has been turned by the tails of the females. Most of the pink salmon have spawned and died, but kings and chums are everywhere, spawning, dying, and dead. There are a few cohos among them and even one or two scarlet-bodied, green-headed creek sockeyes.

At such times I usually leave my rod on the bank and wade slowly upstream among the fish, pausing often and long to lean on my wading staff and watch. So long as I am slow and careful, they do not rush away from me. Any real concern for selfpreservation has largely left them. They are obsessed with sexual purpose, and the imminence of death leaves no leeway for other concerns. A month ago they would have started, arrow-swift, from a shadow. A month ago these shallows that they cling to with such urgency would have seemed places of terror to them. A month ago there was neither male nor female in their concerns. The new preoccupation is physical and mechanical, of course, but it is also ruthlessly logical even in its disregard for the dangers that may defeat it, because the time for fulfillment is so short. Successful spawning is the preservation of the race; within a month, spawned or unspawned, these strong bodies will be little more than a few scattered vertebrae and horny gill covers.

As I stand still in the hurrying water they settle back to their fierce pursuits and plungings, to gentle, questing swimming, to holding and swaying and shifting. Here and there a female shows her broad side in the fierce, flat thrust of nest-digging. Great fish brush against my waders, even pass calmly between my legs. I am nothing to them unless an odd-shaped tree root caught on the shallows. Watching their eyes that neither see nor meet with mine, I feel that they know me, know my concern for them, and are not afraid. I do not have time then — or want it — to remember that a bear waiting quietly to scoop them to death would find the same acceptance until he moved. A bear has his part there, inherited from his ancestors; but then I, too, am a rightful spectator, my way paid by understanding, my part to watch, to sympathize, to enjoy, to hope that there will never be less of them on these fall shallows than I count today.

Shallows like these are not the best places to watch spawning; the surface of the water is too much broken by its speed over the rocky gravels, and light strikes from it in all directions, distorting shapes and colors, obscuring the detail of movement. Yet there is much to be seen. The king salmon females are usually rusty-red, the males almost black. The bodies of both have lost much of their heavy-shouldered thickness; often they are scarred and blotched with destroying fungus. Male and female are by no means always easy to separate, except by their actions; a female coho may be as black of head, as crimson of body, with jaws almost as heavily hooked, as her mate, but it is she that will dig the nest, not he. The pink salmon males are fantastically humped, most of them now dying, while the females hold a certain grace of shape in spite of their exhaustion.

Generally I move slowly upstream to a prowshaped maple whose mossy trunk reaches horizontally ten or fifteen feet over the water before rearing up toward its crown. It is a good place to watch when the light is right. The water is too easy and shallow for the big kings, but chum salmon spawn directly under the tree and for fifty or a hundred feet upstream. Once I watched a small and lively female at work there, shadowed by five large males. The vivid black stripe of her side, edged with gold, showed clearly as she turned to stir the gravel. Then the males closed over her in a struggling mass, and she forced from among them to break the surface and show that black and golden side in the air. The whole thing was repeated several times, and I never did see the end of it or understand its real pattern and purpose. I have seen the shudder of spending fish close under the crooked maple, the lifting of their heads, the opening of their jaws, the clouding of milt in the bottom of the egg pocket. But in watching from above, one can never see all the intricacies of the spawning act or understand fully the interdependent parts of male and female.

In the little streams one can see everything much more clearly than in the larger streams, but the fish are less confiding — one must keep one’s distance, or they will start away and scatter. Even so, their colors are plain, and the patterns of movement seem less haphazard and confusing. Occasionally, when two fish are paired apart from the others, it is possible to recognize the significant intricacies of behavior that are fully revealed only in the observation tank.

Throughout the nest-digging of the female, it is the male’s part to stimulate her. He does this by continuously and closely circling over her so that his belly lightly touches her back. If his circling becomes too high, he expels one or two air bubbles from his swim bladder and sinks deeper; if he finds himself bearing too heavily upon her, he rises to the surface, takes in more air, and resumes his circling at the proper depth. From time to time, usually when she settles back into the gravel hollow to test its depth with her anal fin, he settles beside her, vibrating his body against hers, raising his head, opening his jaws, occasionally even shedding an involuntary jet of milt. Unless the female has decided the nest is ready, all this is without effect, and she thrusts violently forward again on her side, throwing gravel back with her tail. When all is ready the two hold side to side, their vents closely over the depression in the gravel. Their bodies shudder powerfully, heads rise together, jaws open wide, curving bodies force deeply down into the egg pocket as eggs and milt are shed together. The whole process is repeated several times before the fish are finally spent and ready for death.

This death is no anticlimax; nor is it the inevitable consequence of spawning. Precocious male Pacific salmon that have never been to salt water, like their Atlantic counterparts, spawn successfully and do not die. It is not simply a matter of old age; Dr. O. H. Robertson of California has kept castrated sockeye salmon alive and healthy for seven and eight years, or about twice their normal lifespan. Yet it is a particularly complete and, in a sense, perfect death because everything about the fish — blood, tissues, organs, the whole body in all its parts — ages simultaneously. The salmon dies not as man does, through the failure of some single part of him while the rest is healthy; he dies totally, his whole life force used up in the fulfillment of return and reproduction.

Dr. Robertson has shown that this is brought about chiefly by the extraordinary activity of the pituitary and adrenal glands that accompanies, and presumably in large measure controls, the maturing and spawning of a full-grown Pacific salmon. In other words, the salmon’s life is a gradual crescendo from the moment he turns toward his river and the violent activity of the spawning beds.

Even in the short-run rivers a few salmon die without spawning; if they are held away from the shallows by heavy floods, many may pass their time and die unspent. But under normal conditions there is a safety factor of several days between the covering of the last eggs in the final nest and death. Once I pitied the salmon in this state. Now I love them. They are death itself in a shell of life, but that remaining shell of life, though without hope or reason beyond the safety factor it provides, is impressive. The fish conserve strength by sheltering in the bays and eddies of rivers and in the quieter water near the banks. Raccoons and bears find them easily there, the predatory seagulls dive down at them, until at last there is no longer strength to support them even in the lessened currents; they turn sideways, lose balance, drift, and die.

But until that last strength is gone, the will to live is still in them and finds its expression. At some too close threat of danger they will drive away, upstream or down, in a surge of energy that seems no proper part of their wasted shapes. Bodies white with parasitic fungus, great king salmon somehow hold station over swift-running spawning shallows as though they still could play a part. I see them now on the shallows near my house, often two fish together, slowly forced down by the current, turning fiercely against it as it presses on their broad thin flanks and warns them of their weakness. It is the sort of thing man has glorified in himself as the undying spirit of man. Seeing it here so clearly, long after hope and purpose have gone, I can recognize it for what it is: the undying spirit of animals. I find it no less admirable.