Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Ghost river

Nicole Mackay weighing a salmon at the Adams River before sampling it. 
Photo Sonja Grosse Broemer.

“STRONG SALMON NUMBERS DEFY PREDICTIONS IN ADAMS RIVER RUN” -- Such was the upbeat headline appearing in several newspapers around British Columbia in early October.

According to those reports, the DFO estimates for the 2011 Adams run had been bumped from 58,000 to almost half a million returning sockeye. “A tenfold increase”, papers and broadcasters announced triumphantly. The sockeye, they concluded, were returning “in stronger numbers for the second year in a row”. Our salmon are back! was the general mood and feel-good story of the day.

So much so, that DFO Community Liaison Officer Jeremy Heighton felt he had to step in to rain a little on the media parade. “The tone and numbers used in this story can be quite misleading without correct context. I want to clarify what is actually going on”, he wrote in an email. “At this time… the number of fish passed through Mission (400,000+) is fairly consistent with historic sub-dominant run numbers. We are NOT seeing 10x the number of fish projected. We are simply seeing the passage of fish which are heading to the Adams.

Mr. Heighton was spelling out the obvious: just because we have seen them in Mission does not mean that all the sockeye will make it to the Adams, many may actually die en-route.

And he did well to moderate our enthusiasm, because this moment of media bliss did not last for long. A few days later, as I was preparing to drive up to the Adams with a group of salmon friends, I started to receive some alarming reports from people already at the river telling me that it was, for the most part, empty. We left for the Adams weary of what we would find.

As soon as we arrived, we knew something was off balance. We were supposedly at the peak of the run, October 23, and yet there was hardly any smell of rotting fish in the air. At the first bridge out of the parking lot, before reaching the river itself, we looked down into the small channel where last year (the legendary 2010) hundreds of fish had competed and died for the right to spawn. This time however, not a single fish, either dead or alive.

We went to the river bank. No fish. We walked along the trail through the woods for several minutes, checking out every opening in the vegetation leading to the river. No fish. We finally reached the gravel beach at the end of the Island Loop trail. There were some fish there. Finally, some sockeye. Not a lot, though. I spotted maybe sixty in the water ahead of me, comfortably spaced every two to three meters, where one year earlier thousands upon thousands were densely congregated in massive schools.

At the Roderick Haig-Brown plaque:
the most densely populated section of the river.
Photo Sonja Grosse Broemer

More troubling, I noticed even fewer dead fish on the river bank than in the water itself. If there are no carcasses, I thought in a flash of panic, this means that the fish never made it here. So we changed our plan and decided to walk straight down to the other end of the park where the mouth of the river was, and where drifting fish carcasses would normally accumulate. At the river mouth, we would surely know.

We got to the river mouth and strolled along the shoreline of Shuswap Lake. There were almost no carcasses, only a few scattered bones and fish heads looking pretty ancient. It was like inspecting the vestiges of a battle fought many months ago. Had we missed it? Was the run over? But I clearly remembered hearing the opposite message about the sockeye taking their time this year and the peak date being constantly pushed back. So no, we couldn’t have missed it.

We gradually got better at spotting dead carcasses under logjams and vegetation, and so we did find a few here and there. A hundred dead fish, two hundred maybe in the delta section around us. Then we saw five living sockeye in the water, all females for whatever reason, who were slowly making their way up the river. They looked as lost as we were in this solitude.

You may not fully understand what was going through our heads if you haven’t yourself seen the 2010 Adams run. We were standing at the very place where, one year earlier, piles upon piles of dead fish had accumulated over hundreds of meters of shoreline as DFO staff went by counting them. Then, the beachfront must have held tens of thousands of dead fish. Obviously, we didn’t expect anything close to that number this year, but we did expect at least to see some dead fish. Instead, we were standing on the banks of a ghost river.

The Adams River mouth in 2010...
Photo Isabelle Groc

... and that same place today.
Photo Sonja Grosse Broemer

The river mouth today from another angle. Photo Elodie Cousin

“What do you think?” I asked fellow salmon activist Nicole Mackay who was part of our trip.

“It’s bleak”, she said looking straight ahead. And then she said nothing at all, and then neither did I.

Nicole had brought equipment with her to take some fish samples. It's a routine which salmon people such as Nicole have got into: whenever you travel to salmon country, you come prepared to take samples. Because DFO won’t do it. And so, it’s up to the people to gather those samples which are so critical in establishing the truth about diseases decimating our salmon.

Focusing on fish samples was a welcome distraction for our group, as it kept our minds away from dark thoughts. So we all went back to the gravel beach of the Island Loop trail, the only area where we had spotted fresh carcasses suitable for sampling. Nicole picked up a male, weighed it, had a quick look at its gills. They were healthy. She cut off the head and carved through its forehead with a sharp knife until she could access the brain. With a pair of tweezers she delicately grasped the small brain and dropped it into a sampling tube and sealed it. Then she opened the fish’s belly: squirts of milt gushed from under her knife. That fish had not spawned. Nicole inspected the liver and kidney and spleen and took a sample of each, taking detailed notes along the way. Then she put the fish back together and replaced it in the water where she had found it. She performed the same operation on a female. As she cut its belly open, eggs came out bursting. No spawn there either. In all, Nicole opened five fish that afternoon, two of which had spawned.

Unspawned. Photo Sonja Grosse Broemer
Next we walked upstream to an area around the plaque dedicated to Roderick Haig-Brown, the park’s founder. Curiously, that’s where most of the sockeye were located. I counted approximately fifty to sixty fish per 100 x 100 meter square of river. That was definitely better than downstream, although still pretty godawful. Forget 2010. I focused my memories on 2007, the year which had spawned the current run and which, according to DFO, had seen about 50,000 fish return.

In 2007, I had come to the Adams with my parents who were visiting from France, a country where wild salmon has been extinct for half a century. I remember the stark contrast between them, standing like two children in complete awe, unaware until that day that nature could offer such a sublime spectacle – and me, heartbroken and dejected as I contemplated a largely empty river, asking myself for the first time what the hell was happening to our salmon. Yet I have no doubt that in 2007, in spite of my depressing memories, there were significantly more salmon in the water and on the shores than in 2011. We won’t have DFO’s final numbers on this year’s run until late December, but I will wage that it will not amount to much more than 40,000 – if we are lucky.

The media headlines were wrong. There will be no miracle run this year. We are back to the bleak reality of steep salmon decline. One thing I cannot get out of my mind, though, is this number: 400,000 sockeye confirmed in Mission back in September, according to the Pacific Salmon Commission. Those are escapement numbers, meaning that those fish do not get harvested but are let through so they can reach the spawning grounds. And yet, at the other end, in the Adams River, maybe forty thousand if all goes well. That would be, if confirmed, a 90 percent en-route mortality rate.

I don’t care what scientists and fishery managers may say about high mortality affecting late runs such as the Adams, or the fact that such death rates have become the new norm in recent years. Those numbers are unnatural. Especially when I ponder that historically, sub-dominant runs (of which 2007 or 2011 are a part) have seen one million sockeye return on average.

Our sockeye are dying. Are they being killed by a virus? We don’t know yet. But we will, thanks to the army of anonymous heroes who, like Nicole Mackay, are collecting fish samples all over the Fraser. This is a novel form of direct action which is legal, appealing, useful, and politically devastating for the structure's status quo. It is threatening DFO and other government bodies of irrelevance in one of their core missions, disease detection.

With the assistance of SFU Professor Rick Routledge, Alexandra Morton uncovered the deadly ISA virus in pacific salmon on her first attempt, even though government has been claiming for years that their own tests for that same virus have all come back negative. On her first attempt: what does it tell us about their tests? More than a successful test, this marks the emergence of a successful movement. I was proud and privileged to witness that movement in action on the shores of the Adams River last weekend, as Nicole Mackay methodically and silently collected her fish samples.

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