Tuesday, December 13, 2011


One of the more spectacular natural phenomena of the Pacific Northwest is the annual spawning of five species of Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus).

The Harrison River is one of the major tributaries of the Fraser River in southwestern British Columbia. Every fall my wife and I make a pilgrimage to the Harrison to see this phenomenon. The salmon are spectacular to watch, although we see very little actual spawning, just the great number of fish, both alive and dead. The dead ones have presumably spawned, as Pacific salmon spawn only once in their life and then die.

The attribute of breeding only once is called semelparity, and it is more typical of organisms that live only one year, usually called "annuals." There are many annual plants among our wild flowers and quite a few annual animals as well, mostly small ones. Hatch or sprout, grow rapidly, breed. and die are the usual course of events for an annual animal or plant.

Pacific salmon, on the other hand, have a fairly complex life cycle. They hatch in fresh water, where they may spend up to a few years, then move into the marine environment, where over an additional few years those that survive grow large and strong, prepared to come back to the river system and the very stream where they were hatched. They swim upriver some distance, spawn, and then die. That's what all those salmon are doing in the Harrison River.

Some of them are there because of human activities. Hatcheries on tributaries of the Harrison raise the young fish in tanks, where they are protected from predators, then release them when they are ready to travel downstream. When they come back as breeding adults, they are captured and bred artificially by applying sperm extracted from the males to eggs extracted from the females, and the cycle begins again.

The Harrison River system has many thousands of fish of four salmon species—chinook (O. tshawytscha), coho (O. kisutch), chum (O. keta) and sockeye (O. nerka). You'll notice the scientific names from Russian; all of our species occur as well on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

When very large runs are in the river system, especially from October to December, the dead and dying fish support great populations of predators and scavengers. Among them are gulls, crows, ravens, and—most notably—Bald Eagles.

Eagles come to the Harrison in the late fall by the thousands. I have estimated as many as 500 visible from one spot, although that was a rare sighting. More likely, a visitor who stops at several places along the river may see a few hundred birds, sometimes a dozen roosting in the same tree or a hundred spread out over the river flat.

Interactions among the birds are commonplace and make the experience a memorable one. The whistled calls of the eagles, the flowing river, the conifer background, and, if you're lucky, the blue sky, all make the experience a memorable one. The smell of rotting salmon carcasses adds an extra dimension not available on all nature trips.

Dennis Paulson

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