Extinction and the Genetic Code

Excerpt from The Run Of The River, by Mark Hume. Photography by Nick Didlick

[Published by New Star Books, in 1992, the edition went out of stock and out of print in 2008. The last royalty cheque was for about $20. Those buyers of the last books didn’t know how lucky they were.]

The Salmon River rises in dry grasslands on the Douglas Plateau in south, central British Columbia, where cattle wander across the dusty roads and old ranch buildings are weathered the color of copper. It drops through a rocky gully with scree slopes and brown clearcuts marring  surrounding hills, before winding through a rich agricultural valley system to enter Shuswap Lake at Salmon Arm. From its headwaters on the Douglas Lake Cattle Ranch, to its estuary, on Indian land just beyond what passes for urban sprawl in the small, logging, farming and retirement centre of Salmon Arm, the river is full with the promise of fish. In the upper reaches the small pools are said to hold olive green brook trout and small rainbows will sometimes dart out from under log jams lower down to take a tiny dry fly.

But wading this stream in the fall, looking for salmon, the promise is unfulfilled in pool after empty pool. The runs between the pools lie vacant. The perfect spawning gravel, where you can find it swept clean of silt, is unused.

The Salmon River, Salmon Arm on Shuswap Lake, and the town of Salmon Arm are all named after the runs of red sockeye that once filled the lake and choked the stream. It is said that the salmon were so plentiful up until the early 1900’s, that farmers pitchforked them on to their fields for fertilizer. Stories like that are told of many rivers of course, and it is hard to believe there was ever such plenitude – or such waste. But there was on the Salmon.

David Salmond Mitchell travelled through the Shuswap region for the federal fisheries department in 1905. As I waded through those empty pools, searching for the red, humped back of a spawning sockeye, I was thinking of his eyewitness account of a night on the same river:

“Many years ago I rowed in the moonlight up the Salmon River,” he wrote in an unpublished 1925 manuscript. “About a mile from its mouth I tied the bow to a long stake that was driven in the bed of the stream. There was no sign of salmon. I unrolled my blankets in the stern and went to sleep. Several times I awoke to listen and look around; there was no sound but the faint gurgle of the passing water around the bow.

“In the grey of early morning I was aroused by a commotion, and found the river full of sockeye running upstream. I put in an oar and felt that the river was half fish. The increasing light soon showed that it was red from bank to bank.

“Then a stampede or panic occurred, and salmon came surging down, but the river was so full of ascending fish that they blockaded and made a great flat wriggling dam. So jammed where they that they crowded out, and were rushed up the sloping banks out of water. Where the banks steepened, these struggling flapping fish were rolled down onto the backs of the fish in the river bed below, into the mass of which they would again sink. The boat was on fish, on a red, flapping squirming mass.

“The fish lower down stream, suffocating for oxygen, had turned and were rushing back to the lake to breathe fresh water through their gills, and the mass subsided. They rushed down stream creating a great noise, like the roar of a storm, or the noise of thousands of wild ducks rising from a lake and followed down stream by a succession of waves. The river was quiet again, flowing by the stake fourteen inches below the wet high water mark reached a few minutes before.”

Eight years later that run of salmon was extinct. Sockeye vanished from the Salmon River in 1913 after a series of rock slides blocked fish passage in the Fraser River at Hell’s Gate. The slides, caused by railway construction, were disastrous to salmon stocks throughout the region, but particularly to the early running fish that came home during a time of low water, to the Salmon and some other streams. Overfishing during the early 1900’s also did immense damage. For several years, between 91% and 94% of the sockeye entering the Fraser were taken by commercial nets. And of course farmers took their share with pitch forks.

In 1952, 39 years after the last red fish had been seen in the river, sockeye returned to the Salmon. Twenty-five fish, barely enough to fill one small pool, and a tragic reminder of the seething mass that had lifted David Salmond Mitchell’s boat that night in the river. But it was an amazing sight nonetheless – because they were sockeye. Despite the miraculous return of sockeye to the Salmon, however, it is true what they say about extinction: it’s forever. The fish that came back that year, and that, off and on have continued to reappear in the Salmon (none in 1989; a few hundred in 1990), are believed to be colonizing fish that have spilled over from big runs in the nearby Adams River.

The genetic strain of sockeye that was unique to the Salmon River, that was so adapted to the environment that it filled the river until the water level rose 14 inches, is gone forever.

Wading down the river between green fields where dairy cattle low in the afternoon sun, I catch a glint of silver under the far bank. A salmon. I wade slowly across the shallows, expecting it to dart for cover. It doesn’t move, and as I draw near I can see it has been wedged upright between some sticks. The salmon, a coho, is dead. I reach down into the warm water and pull the fish out by the tail. It is a perfectly formed salmon, silver and gray and unmarked. Slime runs off its nose and drips, glistening, into the river. The fish (one of the 3,000 coho and 1,600 chinook that ran into the river that year) is carrying eggs, but it suffocated in the Salmon River before it had time to spawn.

The Salmon Arm district consists of gently rolling hills and fertile valleys set amidst the rugged Columbia Mountains. The flat bottom lands have been pressed into production by both hobby and commercial farmers who raise cattle, dairy herds, field crops, and fruit and vegetables. There is a turf farm on the lower river, and a fallow deer ranch near the headwaters. There’s a cheese factory, and a small rabbit ranch. There are, in the fall, fields that stand tall with corn, and fields littered with surplus melons and squash. There is a pick-your-own pumpkin patch that boasts 6,000 pumpkins.

In all there are about 37,000 hectares of agricultural land, supporting some 800 farms. All of the farms need water, and if they don’t get it from wells that tap the ground table, many of them draw it directly from the Salmon River.

Jack Stead parks his ’81 Jeep near an abandoned bridge and leads me through a melon patch along the lower Salmon. A retired school administrator and active target shooter, Stead is president of the Salmon Arm Fish & Game Club.

“This field was completely underwater during the spring,” he said. “Water running everywhere.”

Passing a small pumphouse with pipes drawing water from the river, he notes that everyone seems to be taking a piece of the Salmon, even farms that disappear under floods early in the year.

Pushing through chest high grass he gets to the bank and peers down into the river. “That’s it, you see. That’s part of the problem. It’s nothing but silt.”

The riverbed is covered with fine sand and muck; there is nowhere for salmon to spawn. Without riverside vegetation to stabilize the shoreline the river is eroding its banks, filling in the spawning beds. Fish need clean gravel to spawn in so that water can percolate oxygen down to the eggs. Without that, the eggs suffocate. And without adequate shade, the river heats up so much that the salmon fry that do hatch can suffocate in the summer months, just as the mature salmon can die in the fall. The river sometimes gets so hot (over 21 degrees C) that spawning salmon turn away at the mouth, repulsed by a current they instinctively know could be fatal.

“The problems on this river are numerous. It’s not just water quality, which is affected by logging and agricultural run off, it’s also water quantity. The third thing is bank erosion due to spring flooding and the fourth is the absence of vegetation along the stream,” says Stead.

Upstream we find a small dairy farm where the Holsteins have trampled paths into the water.

“Now we see a feed lot and everything from it drains straight into the river. Every time it rains that whole business leaches into the river (he gestures distastefully to the lot where cow pies and urine have been pulped into the mud). That would make a helluva photograph.”

We look upstream to where cattle are standing knee deep in the river, seeming perplexed at our interest in them.

“Oh boy,” says Stead, shaking his head.

The cattle eat streamside vegetation and further destabilize the banks by pounding pathways to the water. Run off washes  animal wastes and fertilizer from streamside fields, increasing the phosphate and bacterial levels in the Salmon River.

The solution to the problems created by cattle is to fence off the streambanks, but that is cheap to talk about and expensive to do. Few farmers have surplus land, and fewer still have money to spare. A 1984 ministry of agriculture study of the area found that 50 % of the farmers in the region needed off-farm jobs to supplement their incomes; 68% had yearly sales of less than $10,000.

It is clear that any solutions to the problems on the Salmon River will need the support of farmers, who control the land surrounding the watercourse. And the solutions will have to be cost-free to the farmers.

“A lot of farmers don’t give a damn. They are struggling too hard to make a living. But there are lots who do think about the river – we’ll concentrate on the ones who care,” says Stead.

His group is part of a remarkable project aimed at restoring the Salmon River as a major fish producing system.

The Salmon River Project has drawn together a coalition that includes the federal, provincial and civic governments, the Salmon Arm Bay Nature Enhancement Society, the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council, the Neskainlith Indian Band, Shuswap Advocates for Youth and the Salmon Arm Fish & Game Club.

The Indian band started by raising 2,000 seedlings of fast growing dogwood and red osier to plant along riverbanks.

The district of Salmon Arm began discussing extending its main sewage line to the reserve at the river’s mouth, which would, among other things, eliminate septic tank leakage into the river.

The provincial ministry of environment promised water quality and groundwater drawdown studies and was working to stop further water licenses from being issued.

The federal department of fisheries had its biologists sutdying the river, and The Environment Youth Corps was surveying land owners “to collect suggestions/ideas on potential solutions to erosion, cattle access, pollution, etc.”

The Fish & Game Club, which rebuilt trout spawning beds with great success at nearby White Lake, was ready to provide volunteer labor to put up fences or rebuild streambanks.

“Were going to pull together on this,” says Stead. “It’s going to work. We’ll get this river back. Maybe not in my lifetime, but we’ll get it back.

[END NOTE: Other books by Mark Hume include River of the Angry Moon, and Adam’s River.]