The Adams River is running red. Thrashing through the shallows, millions of ruby-coloured Sockeye salmon battle upstream on the final leg of a four-year, 4,000-kilometre round trip that will bring them back uncannily close to their own birthplace by using smell and an internal GPS.
Each female will then lay roughly 4,000 eggs and die; only one of her eggs will manage to return to this very spot in four years as a spawning adult.
That salmon run I experienced as a young teen on vacation with my parents near Shuswap Lake in British Columbia’s interior was moving, mysterious and magical — so unexpectedly emotional, I never forgot it.
Watching that heartrending struggle for life, it’s no wonder First Nations people in British Columbia consider salmon not only a vital food source, but also a sacred creature.
Some even believe these fish to be returning relatives. A keystone of Aboriginal culture, salmon figure prominently in legends, art, songs and ceremonies.
Their life cycle has long been well understood. They were always treated with the respect of a fellow being and were harvested sustainably for millennia.
The same is true of two other major fish runs in B.C., that of the herring off the West Coast, and that of an amazing little fish up north called the eulachon (currently running right now) —a fish that is so oily it can be lit like a candle when dried!
Since Europeans began emptying the seas with little regard for the complex web connecting all creatures that is so integral to First Nations’ survival, the numbers of all these fish have plummeted.
Today, Indigenous people find themselves fighting not only for their own rights, but also for those of the creatures that helped sustain them to this day, since strong connections with traditional foods are not a thing of the past.
For example, it’s been reported that Vancouver Island First Nations eat an average of 60 kilograms of seafood annually, 15 times the Canadian average. Ninety per cent of that seafood is harvested locally, not purchased at grocery stores.
Salmon is B.C.’s iconic fish and there are five species: Chinook, Coho, Chum, Sockeye and Pink. It is the only one of the trio of fish runs found in oceans, rivers and lakes.