What are Salmon For?

by Bill McMillan

Ten years ago my field partner and I were doing salmon spawning surveys on a degraded Seattle urban creek where it meets Puget Sound.  As we cut open one of dozens of carcasses that had died prior to spawning due to toxins in urban stormwater runoff, a figure strode across the beach toward us.  Staff in one hand and ponytail blown sideways by a late November wind from the Sound, he suddenly halted 30 feet from us.  He bent first to the right and then to the left, shifting the staff from hand to hand theatrically as if on a Shakespearian stage: “Hmmm. Coho?  Chum?  Nooo -- coho/chum cross.”  

Instantly he resolved the riddle of the carcass.  It had the characteristics of both species. Both spawn in the creek as a result of hatchery plants where the urban conditions will no longer sustain long-term natural production.  Hatchery coho return early and dig shallow nests prior to the later returning hatchery chum salmon that dig deeper spawning nests.  As a result, the chum dig up most of the eggs of the preceding coho.  The natural spawning order is typically the reverse – as so often, human intervention gone haywire.  We had previously noted male coho spawning with female chum salmon at this creek.  Some survival from the spawning occurs.  Potentially among the survivors were a few hybrid coho/chum.

We stared at this wizard, who from 30 feet away had made a remarkably insightful call.  He introduced himself as a Haida, a First Nations people from the Queen Charlottes and Prince of Wales Island.  We explained to him the urban salmon problems.  He nodded and for the next half hour provided us with both learned lecture and artistic performance.

He was a singer and drummer who performed on visits to Seattle.  Once greatly feared along the Northwest Coast prior to decimation from introduced diseases related to Euro-American contact, the Haida have been referred to as the Pacific Coast equivalent of the Vikings.  He explained that one day our culture would have to learn the lessons of the Haida:  “To let go of domination by winning, and learn wisdom.  If you do not, we must face together a world without animals like this fish represents.”      

Against the distant backdrop of the Olympic Mountains across the Sound, he pantomimed a drumming and singing performance.  He drew the circle of a Haida drum in the air, and with the other hand hit the invisible drum: “Boom.”  With each boom he told the tribal origin stories of Orca, clam, mussel, and salmon ... all of which were the original people from which the Haida came.  “Boom.” 

We never stirred – mesmerized by the wizard as sunset faded to chill of gray on the wind-swept Sound. 

Our culture has no such stories as the Haida. There are only the logbooks of historic commercial catch and cannery records — a story of salmon indiscriminately killed by the millions. We view nature through humanistic filters for profit making, subsistence or recreational opportunity. That is the tragedy of our history, this great misunderstanding of what salmon—and the larger fabric of nature—are for. Salmon are here to teach the wisdom of sustainability. We have yet to listen.






Bill McMillan is a biologist, activist and co-founder of the Wild Fish Conservancy, where he served as Board President for 10 years. His conservation work dates to 1972, and includes appointments to forest and fishery boards and numerous awards. He is a co-author, along with his son John, of May the Rivers Never Sleep (2012), a book of essays and photographs inspired by Canadian writer and conservationist, Roderick Haig-Brown.