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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Iconic Salmon

Air Date: Week of

The essence of salmon returns to the sea (photo: Mark Seth Lender)

In the Pacific Northwest, the salmon is a source of food and livelihood for people, animals and the forest. Writer Mark Seth Lender notes that this nutritious bounty for the ecosystem comes at the ultimate cost to the salmon.


CURWOOD: Salmon are iconic in the Pacific Northwest, feeding people, bears, eagles - all manner of creatures and even the forest itself, when these fish return from the ocean. Earlier this fall, writer Mark Seth Lender was at Nimmo Bay in British Columbia for the end of the spawning season, to see firsthand the fundamental role of the salmon - and the price it pays.

LENDER: From the deeps of the ocean rising, skirting islands and mud bars, on into currents that twin and divide then racing the ragged coast line. Their shadows lead them, the sun behind, each one single-minded, they swim without respite, toward one place only: the one they must find.

Entering a wide bay blessed by many rivers they press against the outflowing of the tide. They seek by taste (as water blends brackish to sweet) and by the way the river courses, each bend a marker, every rock a signature and a sign post. By length of day, between boulders and through rapids they find their way. Led by Magnetic North clear and simple as a map inked by hand. Driven. Onward. Laddering falls, landslides made of water. Upstream. Always. Salmon returning to the places they were born.

A Lummi fisherman off Cherry Point, just south of the Canadian border (photo: Ashley Ahearn)

Salmon remembers. Every pool, its light, the depth, the way the eddies flow. The texture, how ripples bounce between the shores, crossing and re-crossing, a vibration felt in the thin line scribed along their sides. Each pattern is unique. A moiré for all the senses. Even the odor - cedar and spruce and the indefinable sweetness from the peat of the forest floor is known. And all this Salmon owns.

A salmon after spawning (photo: Mark Seth Lender)

Orca will harry them. Seal and Sea Lion greet them one by one in a tooth-filled underwater grin. Some will weaken, tangle in the kelp and drown there as even a fish without strength to swim will drown. On the rise of the rain-fed stream, by flood tide and ebb tide, by water piled high by wind some will break free… and be on their final way. Others will be stranded. They will struggle and flail so that crows and eagles will find them, and curious at the mystery of their return with beak and talon divine their entrails, and cast their bones. Grizzly bear and black bear will find them leaping. Timber Wolf will play them as they climb. Great paws deft as an angler’s lure; great maw sure as a net of unbreakable twine.

A seal fat on salmon (photo: Mark Seth Lender)

Some survive, their milt and roe commingling, the seed of generations that will follow them. Having found what they came for, now begins the great unraveling.

A kelp forest along the salmon migration route (photo: Mark Seth Lender)

On the emptying of the tide clots of thick white foam float down and where the river joins the bay meld onto the surface, churning and turning in the flow. Having fed along the way all the great ones of ocean and of stream, of forest and of air, all their promises fulfilled, the final essence of salmon returns to the sea.

CURWOOD: There are some of Mark Seth Lender’s photographs at our website, LOE.org.

Shortly after spawning up river, salmon die (photo: Mark Seth Lender)



Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort

Thanks to Sabrine and Vancouver’s Metropolitan Hotel

Check out more of Mark Seth Lender’s photos and essays


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