by Celine Trojand and Mary Leighton
If you go online and look up #wildsalmon, your screen floods with pictures of happy people in Alaska pulling up fish. Open up a paper in B.C. and you’ll likely see a story focused on the controversial fish farms or declining stocks. What’s often missing is what we saw on a recent trip across B.C.’s northwest — thousands of people coming together every year for the salmon harvest and going to great lengths to conserve our wild salmon species. This summer, Mary and Celine set out to visit with communities from Telegraph Creek, to Terrace, to Prince George. We saw for ourselves what salmon mean to British Columbians.
About 30 kilometers west of Terrace, two fly fishing enthusiasts, Nathan and Troy, pull on their waders and grab buckets – not to cast their flies, but to collect fry and smolt trapped in a dried-up swamp next to the Exstew river. They scoop up 170 baby salmon from the overheated slough, carry them to the banks of the river in a bucket, and slowly add the cool river water until they can return the salmon to the river without shocking their little systems.
These members of the Steelhead Society set traps every single day to save hundreds of salmon from certain death. They drive the 60 kilometre round trip after their day jobs to do this, knowing that even with their heroic efforts, only 10 of every 100 samon they save may return. Troy gestures to his daughter and asks, “If at the end of the day all the salmon are gone, what’s she gonna say? ‘What did you do?’ I want her to be able to go out salmon fishing. I want my grandkids to be able to go out salmon fishing.”
Meanwhile, in the dry canyon of Telegraph Creek, a king salmon gets caught in the Ball family’s net. The sisters start yelling for a tote. We watch as they fill it with water, nudge the king inside, and sprint across the 100 meters of beach to shuttle the fish to cool waters and freedom.
The Tahltan have voluntarily given up catching kings this year on account of low numbers. While it’s affecting family harvests and consequently winter stores, everyone we talked to said that it was worth it. That they would do whatever it takes to conserve the species for years to come.
As a case in point, after a rock slide in the Tahltan River that blocked kings from heading up to spawn, the Tahltan collaborated with Department of Fisheries and Oceans to capture and transport the salmon above the slide via helicopter!
We saw the same commitment in Destinee, a young Nisga’a fisheries technician who takes pride in her work counting salmon on the Nass River. “When we’re out there on the river working with salmon,” she says, “I always make sure I’m doing my best job, because I know it comes back tenfold.”
Elsewhere on the Nass River, and on the and Skeena River, Gitxsan communities have moved to seine netting and fish wheels to reduce bycatch and better select which species they catch species. It’s a huge change from how they’ve been fishing for thousands of years.
2019 has been named the International Year of the Salmon, and here at Salmon Beyond Borders we’re getting excited to see salmon people unite to conserve and celebrate this persistent, wild, and beautiful creature, and to show the world what salmon mean to our lives and communities.
As Jacinda Mack says in the film Uprivers, “salmon is more than protein on a plate.” On our trip through British Columbia, we experienced that. Salmon is the reason people come together. Salmon is the connection between the past and the future. Salmon is life.
B.C. is a huge place and we only visited three river systems — the Stikine, the Skeena, and the Nass. Salmon run up the Thompson, the Fraser, the Kitimat, and the Campbell Rivers, and so many more. We’d love to hear about your own local efforts to conserve your salmon.
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SALMON BEYOND BORDERS is a campaign driven by sport and commercial fishermen, community leaders, tourism and recreation business owners and concerned citizens, in collaboration with Tribes and First Nations, united across the Alaska/British Columbia border to defend and sustain our transboundary rivers, jobs and way of life.
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