A Fish Story: Eulogy for a Salmon (Part One)
Setting: Pacific Ocean, 2014–2015
The silver-sided, green-backed Chinook salmon was invigorated from its three-year, 30,000-mile tour along the northern Pacific Ocean’s great encircling gyre of currents.
Pooled with hundreds of thousands of others of its species from all points along North America, its journey had wound north from California to Canada and west along Alaska’s stormy Aleutian Islands, then south a thousand miles along the Asian coast off Russia, Korea and Japan, and finally east again across the ocean and ever closer to its starting point.
It began its journey in 2012 as a finger-long smolt, drawn towards acrid salt water where the Sacramento River meets San Francisco Bay. It was just one of thousands of salmon converging in its approach to the Delta Estuary from a score of tributaries wending their way to the Pacific. Now grown to a yard long and weighing nearly 40 pounds, its instincts to mate and spawn were urging it home.
The barely perceptible scent of its home Sacramento River waters became its compass. It was late summer when it slid beneath a tourist cruise ship, slashed through a quick last meal of anchovies in the slacking tide and passed under the Golden Gate.
The salmon had no understanding that the waters now flowing over its spawning grounds had been reduced to trickles compared to the surging flows present when it was born, a result of the Sacramento River suffering the most recent of its many periods of historic drought.
Winter rains and snows failed progressively in 2012-13, 2013-14, and 2014-15, and the Sacramento River only flowed at all because man had captured and stored water in mountain reservoirs at places like Shasta, Trinity, Whiskeytown, Oroville, Folsom and many other reservoirs. Men and women were releasing water from those dams into the Sacramento and its tributaries, and it ironically was that water that the grown salmon smelled and to which it was fatally attracted.
Like a beacon, the water signaled the fish that all was well. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Setting: Sacramento River, Summer, 2015
There is something in humans that is unique: Our race is aware of and seeks to understand its surroundings. Included in that sentient thought is ability to perceive and empathize with the plight of other humans, animals and the changing world. Also included is a longing for one’s own remembered past, and preserving the idyllic childhood worlds preserved in our collective memories.
Evoking those urges and tugging at memories have evolved into carefully crafted messages, catch phrases, and evocative pleas of activist groups. Wrought with emotion and angst, our society responds with laws, regulations and court-ordered mandates to block natural change and progression in a discordant, anachronistic and out-of-step attempt to resuscitate the past and freeze progress.
Best intentions, divorcing the things we know as reality from our wishes, and seeking to return to simpler times have the ability to harm as well as help. So it was with the plight of the returning salmon.
For millennia, salmon have returned to drought-stricken rivers, then turning away. For some, it meant another year growing and eating in the Pacific. For others, it meant a tragic and meaningless death in too-warm waters on a dwindling gravel bar in a depleted river. Throughout, the species survived.
Humans saw the carnage and sought remedies, all the while knowing that nature’s way was ultimately the most humane and reasonable. In an effort to help all salmon, they released water they had stored in Shasta Lake during the past several winters, changing nature’s equation.
The fish were fooled. They traveled up artificially hospitable rivers later, increasingly out of sync with their instinctual cycles honed through many generations. Fisheries experts note that the winter-run Chinook spawn six weeks to two months later now than they did in the mid-1980s. That means their eggs hatch and fry begin to migrate downriver later, when the river temperatures are too warm, before fall rains begin to cool the waters.
Man has disrupted their cycles, and the fish are paying the price. In 2014, only a percent or two of all the winter-run Chinook made it out of the Sacramento River alive. They died in thousands not far from where they were born and never had the chance to make a Pacific-encircling journey.
What would have happened if humans had not stepped in? The rivers’ waters feeding the Delta would have dwindled and warmed. The salmon in the ocean would not have smelled flowing cool waters. Their probing and entering of the river would have been met by saltwater intrusions, permitting them to survive and turn back or pool together to swim upriver when freshets from autumnal rains made them more hospitable. All would have been as nature intended.
The salmon’s ultimate fate rested in the hands of a few individuals in a powerful state agency. The agency’s ranks were filled with well-intentioned individuals who believed they were helping the fish survive a terrible but predictable drought.
The fish swam upriver towards its ancestral spawning grounds where it was born, a few miles south of the Central Valley town of Red Bluff.
The salmon neither knew nor cared that the cold-water pool in the depleted depths of Lake Shasta was nearing exhaustion and that, in a few short weeks, autumnal heat and warm water releases would kill its eggs in their beds and the river’s waters would drop, exposing its spawning redd to the burning sun.
The fish was one out of a handful of survivors that had lived through a hazard-filled lifecycle that began and ended in the Sacramento River. Like its many fallen fellows, the salmon gave its life for its species in response to prehistoric instinctual drives.
Many deplored the salmon’s loss. Few understood the critical role humans had played in luring the salmon to a lonely spot in the river where its entire progeny would die.
It was among the last of its kind, and the world would never know its like again.