By Annie Langlois
For thousands of years, the Pacific salmon was an important food source to the West Coast’s Indigenous peoples. For people of the Coast Salish culture, amongst others, salmon was not only food, it was part of their culture, being present in their art, songs, dances, ceremonies and legends. In totem poles, the salmon is a symbol of life, abundance, prosperity and nourishment. These important fish also represented dependability, and the renewing cycle of life. And this reputation is well earned: besides a few land-locked populations, our five species of Pacific salmon (Chinook, Coho, Chum, Sockeye and Pink) migrate from the freshwater streams and rivers where they are born to the open ocean and back again to spawn and die. This epic migration can be more than 3,000 kilometres long, and the fish need to battle strong water currents and waterfalls along the way! Since salmon were so plentiful, going through thousands of rivers and streams on their migration, they supported the most densely populated area by Indigenous peoples in Canada.
But since Europeans arrived in Western Canada, things have changed for Pacific salmon. Over a 150 year period, overfishing, combined with the introduction of non-native farmed species, resulted in more than a 90 per cent reduction of wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest by 2008. Much has been learned; the past and protective legal measures have been put in place to support the future success of these important fish. Some Pacific salmon have been introduced to new water systems outside of their historical range and have established themselves successfully. Recreational fishing is changing too, as catch–and–release practices are increasing.
Every year, Indigenous peoples would look out for the salmon’s return to the freshwater and celebrate it. Some still do, alongside folks from the many cultures which inhabit Western Canada today! And they aren’t the only ones. Pacific salmon provide food to a wide variety of species, including river otters, seals, sea lions, bears, wolves and birds. Grizzly Bears are also well-known predators of salmon, ambushing them in shallow waters. Carcasses of dead salmon even provide fertilizers and nutrients to surrounding plants, and fish brought further inland by carnivores and scavengers contribute to spreading these substances to other parts of the forest. Salmon are so important for West Coast ecosystems that ecologists consider them “keystone species!”
It’s important to work together to ensure that this amazing fish remains part of our natural heritage! Learning more about it with Hinterland Who’s Who is a great start. Please visit HWW.CA to read our fact sheet and view our new videos on the Pacific salmon!