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Salmon maintain a delicate and vital balance in the ecosystems of America’s Pacific Northwest. Just as importantly, they provide a reminder that years of stories and observation provide valuable insight into a region’s environmental challenges that data can’t catch. Join Tom Wolff as he learns about salmon’s crucial role in those cold, wild places.

Words by Tom Wolff

Photography by Oriana Smy & Tom Wolff

The first part of a 10,000-kilometre-long bike ride from Anchorage to Southern Mexico led me through the Pacific Northwest – the vast and mostly unpopulated coastal fringe between Alaska, Canada, and north-western America. My trip started in June, which coincided with one of nature’s most incredible phenomena – the Pacific Salmon run. I took a week-long boat ride with a wise fisherman, also named Tom, who taught me unbelievable things about salmon, ecosystems and life, that I will remember forever. This article grew from journal writings I made in early August 2017.

Tom Wolff

The first part of a 10,000-kilometre-long bike ride from Anchorage to Southern Mexico led me through the Pacific Northwest – the vast and mostly unpopulated coastal fringe between Alaska, Canada, and north-western America. My trip started in June, which coincided with one of nature’s most incredible phenomena – the Pacific Salmon run. I took a week-long boat ride with a wise fisherman, also named Tom, who taught me unbelievable things about salmon, ecosystems and life, that I will remember forever. This article grew from journal writings I made in early August 2017.

“I think the fear emanates from observing society mindlessly unravel the threads that have held these complicated systems together for so long.”

Salmon was an integral part of my travels pretty much from the get-go. I was gifted salmon freshly smoked, canned, even raw on a few occasions – and it was always a welcome treat that I usually ate straight away because of the hunger cycling all day stirs up. As I rode over bridges and crossed small streams in Alaska, I saw salmon, slowly but surely, making their way up the creeks and into the tributaries. I struggled for weeks and months to remember the names and nicknames of all five species. I held my first salmon in Skagway, feeling the pure power in its muscular strength as it wriggled from my grasp. For the last five days, I was lucky enough to hitch a ride on a commercial fishing boat as I made my way south from Haida Gwaii to Quadra Island.

These experiences have left an impression on me is a mixture of complete awe and undeniable fear. The awe stems from the complexity of ecosystems and food webs that nature has created. I think the fear emanates from observing society mindlessly unravel the threads that have held these complicated systems together for so long.

“Local populations depend on these amazing animals as a food source, as do bears, eagles, orcas, many seabirds and, believe it or not, even trees.”

I really didn’t know much about Pacific salmon, or salmon generally, before I left Australia for this trip. I knew that bears scooped them up from rivers as they headed upstream. I knew that the island I lived on – Bruny Island in Tasmania – was surrounded by tens of thousands of salmon, all cramped into what were, essentially, fish feed lots. So yeah, I didn’t know a whole lot.

What I absorbed in a short few months is that Pacific salmon really are the lifeblood of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. This fish is a keystone species in the fragile and complex ecosystems of the North Pacific Oceans, its rivers and mountain tributaries. Local populations depend on these amazing animals as a food source, as do bears, eagles, orcas, many seabirds and, believe it or not, even trees.

When people talk about Pacific salmon, they’re actually talking about five different species – pink salmon (humpies), sockeye salmon (reds), chinook salmon (kings or springs), chum salmon (dogs) and silver salmon (coho). Each species varies in appearance, distribution, behaviour and taste. On the trip I was treated to three of the five species – whether smoked, cooked, or eaten raw as sashimi.

Countless communities including many First Nations people across the Pacific Northwest depend on salmon for their livelihood. Virtually everyone knew whether the salmon were running and most knew whether this signalled a good year or bad. A salmon run is the annual migration of salmon upstream, where they move from saltwater to freshwater to spawn. What’s more, these amazing fish, which may have spent up to three of four years out in the ocean, return to the exact same stream in which they spawned.

THE JOURNEY ON THE PEARL SEA

 

After strolling the docks of the marina in Masset, Haida Gwaii, I eventually found the man I was looking for. As it turned out, we even shared the same name. Tom Gray, a commercial fisherman for over 45 years, was generous enough to let me hitch a ride on the Pearl Seaon his return voyage home to Vancouver Island. The Pearl Sea was a beautiful old wooden fishing boat that had weathered the test of time. “Because I had the benefit of patience and time, I was able to get the best materials I could possibly find to build her,” Tom told me proudly. Built with red cedar, yellow cedar, and some fir for good measure, the Pearl Sea was built by a friend and the attention to detail was obvious.

All I had to do in exchange for my five-day passage was, “dress a few fish and drink a whole lotta coffee”. I made an effort to look like I knew what Tom meant when he talked about “dressing” a fish, even though I’d made it clear I’d never set foot on a commercial fishing boat before. “You’ll be fine”, Tom replied unfazed.

Tom Wolff

Before the sun poked its head over the horizon, I awoke to the grumbling of a diesel engine. The Pearl Seaslowly glided away from the dock as the glassy water mirrored our surroundings. The placid waters didn’t last long. Before I knew it, we were out in unprotected sea and I quickly started to feel like I was a little out of my depth even though I’ve spent most of my life by the ocean. But all my time in saltwater was spent in close proximity to land – a few kilometres offshore felt like a different world. Choppy, short-period wind swells bucked the boat back and forth violently. Tom, a veteran of these waters, was utterly relaxed.

Dressed in a pair of waterproof overalls, I did my best to focus on the horizon. We were on a troll boat – a type of fishing that uses multiple lines with many lures attached to tempt fish to bite instead of using large drag nets. That day we were chasing silver salmon, for Tom’s winter food supply. Having finished the commercial end of the season, it was time for him to fill the family freezer.

Tom Wolff

“Trolling is one of the more humane methods of commercial fishing. Instead of being choked to death by a gillnet, or crushed in a seine boat’s net, fish on troll boats are basically beaten over the head once they’re taken off the line – a quick death.”

Before long we took the first coho off the line and stored it in the back of the boat. Trolling is one of the more humane methods of commercial fishing. Instead of being choked to death by a gillnet, or crushed in a seine boat’s net, fish on troll boats are basically beaten over the head once they’re taken off the line – a quick death. It’s not the most glamorous way to kill something, but for who’s been mostly removed from meat production, I gained a lot from the experience and appreciation for what goes into gathering meat.

In between bouts of fairly violent seasickness, it was my job to dress the fish. Dressing involves removing the innards of the fish so it’s ready to be put on ice, delivering the best possible product to consumers with ever-greater expectations. After taking a filleting knife, I remove the gills first, before making a cut in the underside of the salmon to remove its inner workings and the remaining blood. This ensures a longer shelf-life in the ice and prevents the fish from rotting. What I noticed, and discussed later at length, was the remarkable colours on the salmon’s body, particularly up near the dorsal fin. Vivid blues, purples and greens contrasted against with the silver scales of the coho salmon. As I dressed the fish, these colours were again balanced by the bright orange flesh that comprised the interior of the animal. We bagged about thirty fish that day, and I was wrecked – my recently vacated stomach didn’t really help.

“Tom prides himself on telling people the truth, even if it’s not what they want to hear.”

We caught Tom’s fill in a day and we still had another four days left on our journey south. With my bike safely strapped to the roof of the boat, I played countless games of solitaire, read all of Tom’s National Geographics from cover to cover, watched orcas surface alongside the boat and bears stroll along deserted beaches. Tom even handed over control of his boat – “just don’t hit anything, okay?” he warned. The Pearl Seadarted its way in and out of a labyrinth of straits, passages, sounds and narrows that comprised Canada’s section of what’s generally known as the Inside Passage. These waters were, for the most part, very well protected and we only had small sections in exposed waters. I was pretty bloody thankful for that.

When I wasn’t entertaining myself, I leapt at the opportunity to learn as much as I could about salmon in my time with an old, wise seadog. As it turned out I couldn’t have picked a better captain. As well as being a commercial fisherman, or perhaps more accurately because of it, Tom has spent many winters teaching a course on Salmon and the related ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest at the University of British Colombia in Vancouver. A self-described “loose cannon”, Tom has never been to university and hence his course is not an accredited one, but if 45 years of fishing doesn’t teach you a lot about salmon and their behaviour, then I don’t know what does.

Tom’s rogue reputation means that wherever he goes – fisheries meetings, guest appearances at conferences run by the David Suzuki foundation or university lecturing – there’s always someone deployed to keep an eye on him. Tom prides himself on telling people the truth, even if it’s not what they want to hear.

Tom Wolff

WHY ARE SALMON POPULATIONS DECLINING IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST?

 

Salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest are undergoing a serious decline. Why? A few months ago I probably would have guessed over-fishing. Makes sense, right? This dominant assumption has plagued the commercial fishing industry in the Pacific Northwest for decades. Fisherman like Tom have defied environmentalists on this point by using the comparison between fisheries in this region — which are in severe decline — and the Alaskan fisheries, which are having record runs in recent years. The Alaskan fleet is much, much larger than that of the Pacific Northwest, yet salmon populations are growing. Tom Gray, along with many other fishermen, continue highlighting an often overlooked but crucial factor – habitat.

Alaska has made significant inroads into protecting vast swathes of land under strict wilderness conditions. That means no mines and no clear-felling of forests. Salmon populations in these areas are, by all accounts, flourishing. Coincidence? Tom says no.

When I was on Haida Gwaii, I witnessed the decimation of old-growth forests. If I thought Haida Gwaii was bad, my journey down the Johnstone Strait alongside Northern Vancouver Island was a real eye-opener. The utter devastation wreaked on endless valleys and hillsides was immense and the forests continue to be decimated. Everywhere I looked I could see recent clear-cuts or regrowth from clear-cut. Not only has this destroyed complex terrestrial ecosystems, I was beginning to learn about the effects it was having on marine life.

“The problem is that sediment eventually runs off into creeks, streams and tributaries – smothering salmon eggs that are yet to hatch.”

When you cut down trees that have thrived for hundreds of years, you attack what they stand upon – soil. Much of Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii, and the rest of the Pacific Northwest has very steep terrain – picture cliff-like mountains dropping off straight into the ocean. Soil stabilisation occurs over hundreds of years, as old trees bury roots deeper into the ground providing the foundations for study soil. When you cut these trees down, gravity takes its course and soil migrates downhill. The problem is that sediment eventually runs off into creeks, streams and tributaries – smothering salmon eggs that are yet to hatch. It also affects nutrient exchange, the temperature and water flow of creeks and rivers, and a whole lot of other factors crucial to the way salmon breed and thrive.

Because nature works in circles and cycles, salmon also affect the health of trees. A big salmon is packed full of nutrients, and when a bear walks off into the forest with a recent catch, chances are she might drop some salmon here or there. An eagle might inadvertently do the same. Not all salmon that enter the streams have enough stamina to complete the migration — natural selection chimes in. All of these casualties contribute to nitrogen and nutrient cycle of the forest soil. In some places, studies have shownthat “up to 50 percent of the total nitrogen the trees use comes from salmon.”So even if you don’t clear-fell the whole damn hill, you’re condemning the ecosystem to a bleak and unstable future.

Orcas are also threatened by collapsing salmon populations. On the Pearl Sea I was lucky enough to see orcas up close. At one point, a bull male leading his pod came right alongside the boat, rolled on his side and stared at me with one eye. It was one of the most intense moments I’ve had with an animal. Different pods of orcas specialise in hunting different prey so while some target seals, pods around British Columbia tend to have a preference for salmon. And Tom’s years of observation in these waters tell him that they’re struggling. Walking through a clear-felled forest, never in my wildest dreams would I have considered the affect it was having on a cetacean hunting a salmon kilometres out to sea.

Tom Wolff

“Environmentalism is a funny phenomenon in a lot of ways. It’s a fairly new “discipline” of study, but there are problems.”

Small fishing communities in BC, Tom told me, have been stripped bare by countless governments and environmental organisations that pressured them to close their businesses. Now there are no fish left. No fishing boats either. Tom once fished around Vancouver Island, but now every summer makes the five-day journey north to Haida Gwaii to ‘Area F’, where his licence allows him to fish. Haida Gwaii’s fisheries have also been severely affected, but not to the devastating levels further south. These days, Tom and his partner Pete fish for the love of it. They’re financially stable enough but they can’t seem to stop. Pete’s almost eighty years old and he still pulls fifteen-hour days on the boat. Something tells me these guys won’t stop until they’re physically incapable of dressing a fish. It reminds me of those old tyre covers back home: “Fish to Live, Live to Fish.”

Environmentalism is a funny phenomenon in a lot of ways. It’s a fairly new “discipline” of study, but there are problems. Why don’t we pay more attention to the men who’ve been observing these salmon and their habitat for forty-five years? Is it because they don’t have a university degree? Or because they don’t have data to back up their opinions? People like Tom and Pete are often ignored for the dominant theory of the month. And quite often it comes at the cost of dismissing all other theories and ideas. Tom and Pete’s livelihood depends on thriving salmon populations, and they’re doing everything they can to make that happen.

I don’t mean to criticise environmentalism. Environmental issues are nuanced and deserve balanced debate – solutions aren’t always easy and it’s wise to consider the implications of jumping on a bandwagon to protest a certain group or profession. Academic analysis has its merits, but so too does decades of careful observation. Tom and Pete have over 100 years of observation and insights about salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest. So when it comes to solving this immense problem, I’m listening to the fishermen who fish to live and live to fish.

IMAGES—Courtesy of Tom Wolff & Oriana Smy

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Tom Wolff

Tom Wolff is a photographer and writer from Lennox Head on the Northern Rivers NSW, Australia.