This Week's View

by Deanna Lee Birkholm

October 24th, 2004

Celebrating the Death of a Chum

Halloween is a great exciting adventure for small children - a chance to gather lots of goodies which may be 'off limits' during the rest of the year. (Remember this a country of dedicated dieters) the older kids buy into it because it's free candy, and the parents, depending on the ages of the kids are dragged along as chaperons or pack mules.

Our neighborhood has organized an after-school party for the little kids at our local school, so the numbers of kids we get Halloween night isn't very large. But one never quite knows for sure, so Castwell bought a bag full of the good stuff. Kids who show up will have a nice treat and we'll consume the leftovers. Peanut-butter cups this year.

One year we put a bowl of candy out on the front porch, unattended, and went fishing. The bowl was not quite empty when we returned, some thoughtful kids had left a couple for the next 'trick or treater.' I realize there are places you couldn't do that, but this is a pretty laid-back little community and not the big city at all.

We went fishing? Halloween marks the beginning of the Chum Salmon season for us. There are only a handful of places we fish them, and since the life cycle of the Chum can vary depending on conditions at sea, how many where eaten by their predators before they returned to spawn, and if we've had sufficient rain to put enough water in the creeks for them to get upstream to spawn, a place which was really hot last year may not be this year. We almost lost a complete age class of salmon a couple of years ago when a pod of Orca whales followed the salmon run into our estuary and ate everything they could.

Salmon really are a marvel of nature. If you consider the size of the oceans in which they travel for most of their lives, to zone in on the scent of their natal stream and return to it in three or four years is truly incredible. Our local Chum travel thousands of miles before coming 'home.' Some salmon travel even farther swimming upstream in freshwater for hundreds of miles. All of this accomplished in a brain smaller than your thumb.

When you see photos of the huge salmon runs in the rivers and streams of Alaska, you might give some thought to the fact that the number of salmon we now have is a very tiny fraction of the total number of salmon which were in the oceans and rivers when fishermen first discovered them.

All the Pacific salmon originated in the Sea of Japan, eons ago. Not to be trite, but there were billions and billions of salmon! We here in the Great Northwest have all except one of the species, the Cherry Salmon never having migrated to the east as the others did. It is still found on the coast of Russia and is heavily protected (due to overfishing by Japanese factory boats.)

There is a neat story about how serious the Russians are in protecting what remains of those salmon. As it was told to me, there were three Japanese factory ships illegally fishing for the Cherry Salmon. The Russian government sent out a message to stop and leave the area. They didn't stop or leave. The next message was stop and leave or the Russian boats would sink them. They still ignored the warning. The Russians boarded one of the boats, forced the crew to leave and sank the boat. The other two boats got the message and left. Sometimes talking doesn't work. (State Department, you catch that?)

Shortly after the turn of the century (1900) a method of canning was invented in England. It didn't take long for that to make it to the US east coast, and then the west coast. There were fish canneries everywhere out here. Our little town of Poulsbo, WA, had several. A good protected harbor for the fishing fleet and salmon everywhere! After World War II we saved most of Europe from starvation - shipping millions of cans of SALMON. Highly nutritious and cheap compared to beef or other canned products, the US government still buys canned salmon for use in prisons and public school lunch programs. The program should have been discontinued long ago, but it's one of those entitlement things which will probably still exist after the last salmon is gone.

Those canneries consumed at least half of the existing salmon in the Pacific Ocean by the end of the reconstruction of Europe.

Add to that destruction of watersheds, wall to wall concrete and parking lots, unrestricted growth and all the ills of modern society and it is flat amazing we have any salmon left at all. Some of the west coast states have enacted a net ban preventing near-shore gill netting of returning salmon, unfortunately Washington State is not one of them. It's more than sad, the mis-management of the major salmon here is a crime, just not legally called one.

The only salmon the State hasn't 'managed to death so far' is the Chum. It is the one we have the most of. Duh.

My husband and I do fish for them, and while we may not leave a bowl of unattended candy on the front porch this Sunday night, we no doubt will check the local estuaries on Friday or Saturday to see what is happening. We do not keep any of the Chum salmon. We have kept one or two over the years, one time to smoke some, and other time one of us caught a very bright silver male and I poached it for a meal with friends. It was lovely.

Mostly however, the fall Chum run here has become a marker of the season for us. All of our Pacific Salmon die after spawning, so the whole event indeed is marked as the renewal of the season, the fish themselves and our stream ecology.

What a lovely way to celebrate! ~ DLB

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