Tag Archives: salmon

The Bartlett River Miracle

September. In years past it’s meant digging out the crawlspace, filling the car, and early mornings in ferry terminals. But not this year. Or the year after this one. Or the next one. Now I’m digging out the fishing rod, filling the freezer, and spending mornings on the Bartlett River Trail.

Glacier Bay is a paddler’s park. There’s only a handful of maintained trails. The most popular of which is the Bartlett River Trail in Bartlett Cove. Just a few hundred yards from the lodge, it endures hundreds of footsteps as nervous visitors armed with bear spray make the mile and a half track to the mouth of the river.

But at seven in the morning in mid-September, we have the whole trail to ourselves. The speedometer on Dr. Zachary Brown’s pickup is busted, insisting that we’ve been going 115 m.p.h since he picked up me and Patrick Hanson. But car maintenance is never at the forefront of a Gustavian’s mind. Today we’re after something much more valuable. The three of us and Zach’s partner Laura Marcus park at the trailhead, grab our gear, and push into the woods. Our boots slosh through the mud, the only sound the creaks of backpack straps, the rattle of squirrels, and the quarrels of gulls.

We climb down a low sloping hill, an artifact of a different age, a glacial roadmap. Grand Pacific was here. Sitakaday, the ice bay is no more. But with loss comes life. We’re surrounded by Hemlock, Spruce, Devil’s Club, Blueberry, Hedgehog Mushrooms, dozens of species of moss and lichen. So much life, in large part thanks to the Sockeye, Pink, and Coho that run up the river every year with metronome-like precision. And I’ve come to take some of that life. We all have.

I spend my life in communion with this masterpiece, but as an observer. A silent watchman in the back of the room. But with the fishing pole clutched in the hand, I’m going to supplant myself in the middle of the performance. I’m no longer an audience member, I’m a player, and my role has the potential for catastrophe.

2017, a year that has infused those with a love of quiet places and open spaces with such terror, has a handful of marvelous anomalies. Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska had a banner year in the most abundant Sockeye fishery on earth. And the Coho of southeast are following suit. There are literally too many returning Coho for all of them to spawn. The commercial fisherman, sea lions, seals, bears, and eagles cannot eat them fast enough. Two vestiges of hope in a world where every environmental paper seems to be a harbinger of doom.

I lead our little quartet out onto the river. We’re a bunch of novices. Patrick carries a brand new rod he’s never casted and Laura landed her first Pink on the Salmon River the other day. Despite growing up in Alaska, neither Zach or myself are bursting with angling expertise. In fact I’d spent the better part of the month casting and retrieving with little to show for it. Thankfully Kyle Bishop took pity on me in a way few in the competitive world of fishing would have. He showed me his favorite fishing holes and advised me on everything from his preferred lures to proper vacuum packing techniques. From his generous shared knowledge and my tally of two Coho, I’m somehow the most “experienced.”

The first few times I’d fished the Bartlett I’d succumbed to an all too common mistake. As soon as I hit the river I’d begun to cast with the logic that all the fish must pass this spot. But Kyle had taught me differently. Don’t give in to temptation. Keep hiking, and when you think you’re there, hike a little more. And so we keep going, another forty minutes along the river bank. The trail shows signs of other commuters. River otter, black bear, coyote, and wolf. But the only occupants this morning are dozens if not hundred of Mergansers that lift off from the river as one, white wings shining in the early light.

We hop a tiny stream and past a wide river bed where hundreds of Pink salmon are spawning, carving long divots in the gravel stream to deposit eggs and sperm so there children can one day do the same. There work finished, they have nothing left to give. The flesh flaking from their bones, they succumb to the unrelenting current and drift back down the river until coming to rest on the bank.

At last I stop at the spot Kyle insists has been on fire all year. We begin the repetitive task of casting again and again. The high pitched whirl of line off the swivel, the gentle plop of the lure on the river, the click-clack-click-clack of the reel. For an hour we experience nothing but near misses. I nearly get one to the steep river bank but just as I reach for the salmon, the line snaps, taking the fish, my lure, and gear with it. We spread out up and down the shore, Zach disappears behind a big stand of Spruce. I’m situated between Patrick and Laura who stand about 200 yards away.

A huge splash comes from the river a dozen yards and front of Laura. I look over to see her reeling furiously, but nothing else comes of it. Assuming she either lost it or it was just one of the many leaping Pinks, I prepare another cast.

“David? Can you come help me?”

I drop my rod and, caution to the wind, grab my fillet knife and begin to run down the river towards her. There is a tension in our voices, a gritty determination with a tablespoon of excitement and, yes, fear. It’s a big fish. A big beautiful fish. And it runs on her, again and again making a break for the far side of the river. It’s undulating body sends up flashes of beautiful silver. But he’s no match for the rod of humanity. And at last he has nothing left to give. I hop down the bank ankle deep in water as she drags her catch over.

“Keep the tension on the line.”

I grab the line just above the Coho’s head and reach into my thigh pocket for my needle nose pliers. They’re small but heavy, and the thin handle gives me confidence I can land the blow that will end the fight once and for all. But before I do, I stare into his eyes.

Fish always look surprised. Those wide, unblinking eyes, mouth slightly open like someone has just jumped at them from a dark corner. I wonder how the hook feels in his mouth. How tired he must be to stop fighting. How I’m about to finish a miraculous story that started four years ago in this very stream. How this fish has been bucking the odds since before it was born when gulls were scooping up the eggs around him. How many nets, mouths, and lures it had dodged until, a dozen miles from home, he bit down on Laura’s. So close. There’s still time.

I swing.

The pliers make a dull hollow sound on his skull like a finished loaf of bread. I swing again. And again, and again. He stops squirming. I slip my fingers into his gills and out his mouth and with a final heave drop him on the river bank at Laura’s feet.

“What a beautiful fish.”

They truly are. Brighter than silver dollars on the sides and bellies, emerald green with black speckles on top. They seem to be fluorescent, the skin changing color as you turn them in the light. I explain how to cut the gills to ensure he bleeds out and doesn’t suffer.

“I want to do it.”

I expect nothing less of her. But before she does, Laura lays her hands on his head, whispers a few words of gratitudes, and with steady hands cuts the gills. I pull her lure out of his mouth and we set him on the grass.

“He may thrash a bit more,” I tell her, “but don’t worry, it’s just his nerves firing. He’s not suffering.”

Down the river the other way, a splash erupts in front of Patrick. Another one. I take off down the trail and the saga plays out again. Fight, let it run until it’s too tired to do anything but float in the current, bring to shore, lift, hit, gills, grass.

Patrick kneels before the fish and runs a hand down the lateral line. He strokes the fish, his head bowed as if in prayer. He cuts the gills, and sets it in the grass. We want every fish to die with dignity and grace, as little pain as possible. Each gift, each miracle treated with the upmost respect. Does it matter how an animal dies? I think so.

The bite is on. Again and again beautiful streaks of silver break the water. This is just the beginning. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions are behind these, some still queuing up in Cross Sound.

“How amazing that in 2017 there can still be this kind of abundance,” Zach marvels. In a few hours we have eighteen Coho on the river. We also have a three mile hike back. We line the fish up and take a picture to remember them buy. But no one wants to pose rod in hand over our kills. No one has designs of turning them into Facebook cover photos. Before we fill our backpacks, we sit down on the bank and eat lunch.

“I feel like we should say grace.” Says Laura. We agree. “Whether it be God, nature, or just plain luck, we thank you for this marvelous gift, that will sustain us through the winter and has brought us closer together as friends.”

The work is just beginning. Over the next two days we’ll dress, clean, fillet, package, smoke, and can every one of them. We’ll use the back bones for soup stock, take the scraps and sculpt them into burgers. But for now we sit and watch the river flow by and watch the Coho continue to swim by, pushing up against the tide so that, four years from now by God, nature, or just plain luck, we can do this again.

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Here We Go Again

A couple of summer’s ago Brittney was in Seattle when she and a couple of friends stopped in a sushi restaurant for lunch. One of her friend’s asked the waitress before ordering if the salmon roll was made from farmed or wild salmon.

“Oh it’s farmed,” said the waitress without a sliver of embarrassment, “but that’s good because it doesn’t have any of the toxins or parasites of wild fish.”

You can’t make this stuff up. Nobody ordered the salmon.

It’s incredible that in an age where virtually every question can be answered by a piece of metal that fits in our pocket, we remain so uninformed, so ignorant, using the power of wi-fi for cat videos and time lapsed food recipes.

And while I’m sure the server was just trying to say what she thought Brittney and her friends wanted to hear. The farmed fish propaganda was far from true. Quite the opposite actually.

Since their arrival in the water’s off Vancouver Island in the early 80s, the salmon farm industry has been cloaked in a web of controversy, cover ups, and deceit. Fish farmers swore that with their technology, that the farmed Atlantic salmon could not escape.

They did.

When fisherman began to find Atlantic salmon in their nets, the industry promised that they could not procreate in the wild.

They did. The more aggressive Atlantic salmon rooting out their native Pacific brethren from their already threatened streams.

The location of the pens near estuaries has led to a decades long fight to bring attention to sea lice. These sea lice, while relatively benign to fully grown fish, latch on to young, defenseless salmon fry and have threatened the livelihood of several Pink salmon stocks.

The latest news from those on the front line is perhaps the most disturbing of all. A virus that decimated the farmed salmon industry in Chile back in 2007 has been found in both farmed and wild salmon along the B.C coast.

The good news is the whistle blower, biologist Alexandra Morton uncovered the virus early. “We never found the whole virus, just pieces of it,” she reported to the CBC. One reason for this though is the closed door policy of the farmed fish industry. A closed door and hush hush policy is never an indicator of respectable or ethical practices. There’s a reason slaughter houses run off anyone with a camera. Morton and her team were able to take samples from “healthy” farmed salmon, usually ones that were already on the market. Potentially sick or diseased salmon that could be in the pens as we speak are hidden from sight.

The fish farm industry’s silence in damning enough evidence and the latest in a line of embarrassing failures in which the Canadian government has looked the other way. No criminal charges were filed against Imperial Metal’s, the company responsible for the burst Mount Polley dam in August of 2014 https://raincoastwanderings.com/2015/03/07/worth-so-much-more/.

In fact, Imperial Metal’s is now refilling the site of the burst dam. That’s what happens when you “donate” $234,000 to B.C Liberals. Remind me of this the next time I complain about America’s corrupt political system.

“What evil, thieving people,” we say. We shake our fist and…. what? We go back to our cat videos, we look out the window and the world looks the same. A storm rages right now in Blackney Pass and shakes the window. If there is a deadly salmon virus rolling along the flooding tide right now, it’s not giving itself away. What will it take for change? Will we wait until it’s too late? Until wild salmon are nothing but a myth? Our grandchildren wondering if they ever really existed?

Let’s not let that happen. Boycott farmed salmon, hell, boycott the stores that sell farmed salmon. Take away the demand, destroy the supply. And speak up. Let Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party know that what is happening in the water’s off B.C is bullshit. That no profit is worth the potential death of an entire ecosystem. Do it now, before you leave your computer, before your busy day continues and it slips from your mind. Let’s stand with Alex Morton and the tireless watch dogs that have been battling this for years. Write to the Liberal Party here: https://www.liberal.ca/contact/

To my American and global readers remember, the ocean is not a closed system. A pandemic doesn’t care about international boundaries, the distance from B.C to the southeast panhandle is not  great. If it breaks out here, there’s no reason that it can’t travel north, south, east, west. We must stop caring about just ourselves and what is happening just in our backyard. The natural resources of this planet belong to all of us. And when one stock is threatened, we are all threatened.

We are a race that has cut ourselves off from the natural world. But we are not above it. We are, in the end, at its mercy. We cannot survive without it.

Photo from: http://alexandramorton.typepad.com/.a/6a0120a56ab882970c01a73d74643c970d-pi6a0120a56ab882970c01a73d74643c970d

Born too Late

One of my favorite TV shows is Futurama. It’s a weird,  stupid cartoon in which a slacker named Fry is cryogenically frozen in the year 2000 only to be unfrozen a thousand years later. He awakes to find that one eyed (and curvy)  female aliens and beer drinking robots are part of normal every day life.

In one episode Fry, his distant relative, a mad scientist named Professor Farnsworth (just go with it) and the beer drinking, fire belching robot go back in time. Like all TV shows, the plot and setting  completely reset by the end of the half hour run time with the exception that the professor stopped briefly in the year 1939 so that he can assassinate Hitler with a massive ray gun.

Isolated and surrounded by a forest hundreds and in some cases thousands of years old, the land here can feel as if it’s been frozen like Fry and we’re able to glance back in time by simply walking through the forest and counting the rings on fallen trees.

But it’s not static. Nothing is. There is no climax community where, if left undisturbed it will stand immaculate forever.

I often find myself obsessed with how the land and wildlife looked thirty years ago, a hundred years ago, a millennium, an epoch ago. So I scour the books and testimonies of those that have come before me. Offhand comments like one by Paul a couple months ago send my imagination into overdrive.

“There used to be a hotel on Parson Island,” he says offhandedly. “This place used to have a much denser population.”

No way. I stare up at the cliffs that form the southern border of Parson Island and try to imagine it dotted with buildings. The absurd image of a 30 story Hilton plays before my mind. Communities in Freshwater Bay, fish buying companies in every cove, hand loggers determinedly probing through the inlets looking for something bigger.

One of these men was Billy Procter. He’s something of a legend. Our Gandolf or Obi-Wan Kenobi if you’d prefer. He grew up in Freshwater Bay, a little indention in Swanson Island a five minute boat ride from where Orca Lab now sits. Of course in the 1920s there was no Orca Lab. No whale watching industry, Orca’s nothing more than competition for fish. For it was fish that pumped the blood of the north island and Billy talks endlessly of massive runs of salmon. So thick on the flooding tide that the air was inundated with their odor.

“The Blackfish used to follow them through Blackfish Sound in numbers so thick you could walk across there backs,” he relayed to Alexandra Morton.

It’s these phrases that make me yearn for a different time. “The good old days” as it were. When a 2 HP engine was nothing short of a miracle, and fishing was as easy as dropping a line in the water and jigging for a few minutes. Before clear cuts and climate change, before fishing stocks plummeted or tugs chugged in an endless relay up and down the strait.

“I was born too late,” I think, setting down Billy and Alex’s book, Heart of the Raincoast.

I want to see that sort of abundance. I want to fish, can, and gather my way to an existence. I want to live in a float house and tow it up and down Knight Inlet.

In the 70’s Erich Hoyt and two other filmmakers sailed up Johnstone Strait and settled in Robson Bight, spending the summer tracing the loving shorelines of Cracroft, Vancouver, and Hanson, following the whales. No rules, no regulations, no cares. I was born too late. They were camping in the bight, documenting the rubbing beaches for the first time. Rubbing shoulders with the parade of scientists who rewrote the book on the “savage killer whale” and helped us see them the way we do.

I want to dive off the rubbing beaches, follow an orca pod in my kayak with no boats blitzing past me at 30 knots. I want to ride the ebb out Blackfish and the flood through Weynton. I want the good old days. I want to steal Futurama’s time machine and sit on the rocks at the feet of an old growth forest that has never been cut. I’ll even agree to take out Hitler on my way.

No I don’t.

Because no one talks about the “bad old days.” No one dwells on the fact that everything that ate fish had a bounty on it sixty years ago. 2 bucks for a seal’s flippers, a dollar for a Raven’s beak or an eagle’s talons. That there’s a reason that the salmon don’t run so thick you can smell them followed by Blackfish that form a bridge across the sound. That the slow curve downward began somewhere.

Or that the 70’s were filled with the live capture trade for Orca’s and the cold blooded murder of several others. That there’s a reason that the beaches and bight are closed, that the minimum distance is 100 meters. That today we live with the decisions made during those days that were neither good nor old.

So I go to ask the one soul on this island that’s lived in it for a millennium. I walk to Grandma Cedar whose cedar boughs have seen it all. Has watched the salmon come and go, the glacier’s charge and retreat, and a lab be built at her feet.

Does she miss the good old days? The bad old days?

I stare up at her, my neck craning, trying to make out the branches that originate a hundred feet above me. But she is centered in the here and now. Focused on the simple task of taking the miracle of sunlight and carbon dioxide and turning it into oxygen. Perhaps if all she’s thinking about is today I should be too.

Maybe it’s one thing to read and admire history and another to yearn for a world I know virtually nothing about. One thing to devour old black and white photos and dig for artifacts on the shoreline and another to feel as if it will never be that good again. To let go of a history I can’t even begin to understand or control, and look to a future I can. You can keep your time machine Professor.

Cover photo credit: BC Archives. Freshwater Bay C.A 1916.

 

 

 

 

Worth So Much More

More than a century ago, steamers laden with starry eyed prospectors plied the inside passage in a desperate race to reach Skagway, Dyea, and the promise of massive gold deposits in the Yukon. Of the 40,000 to stampede across the permafrost, ten percent found gold, one percent struck it rich. The rush ended with hardly a whimper in just three years.

But thhe gold rush is not over. One hundred and fifteen years later, the human race continues to be seduced by the presence of minerals hidden in rock, with the promise of wealth and money. All in the name of happiness, security, prosperity. Once again, the sites lie within the Canadian boundary and once again the road runs through Alaskan waters. Instead of steamers and ferries crossing the border, it is salmon.

The Unuk, the Taku, and the Stikine represent three massive, salmon rearing, transboundary rivers that cross the border of Northern British Columbia and southeast Alaska. They represent one of the last few places on earth where the delicate balance between ocean and land remain in perfect symmetry with salmon serving as their powerful arbitrator. They draw life from the forest and in turn, rejuvenate the rivers, oceans, animals, and humans they touch. Directly and indirectly, they fuel a 2 billion dollar per year industry that radiates throughout the panhandle via tourism and fishing. And we are spitting in their face. Threatening to destroy a miraculous and beautiful gift that has been our heartbeat since the last glacier receded.

As Canada continues its rapid deregulation of environmental protections, tar sand developments, and other atrocities against the natural world, the policies begin to directly threaten us on the other side. Currently, no fewer than nine mines are either being proposed, developed, or are under review in northwest British Columbia. All of which are connected or adjacent to these  massive, life giving rivers. Mankind has gold in their hearts, and we cannot stand the thought of it laying uselessly in the earth. Not when there is profit to be made.

Many have pointed to the relevant and convincing argument that Alaskans stand to inherit none of the profit, and all of the risk of these mining projects. The money flows into Canada while acid mine drainage flows into the inlets and bays. Holding pits and dams would be responsible for holding millions of gallons of these toxic pollutants indefinitely. Indefinitely, is a hell of a long time.

And yet we hear assurances from involved mining companies such as NovaGold, Chieftan, and the now infamous Imperial Metals about their environmentally safe practices, technologically sound designs, and pride in their development and design. At least, that’s what Imperial Metals had to say about their Mount Polley mine.

On August 4th, 2014, around 1 am the Mount Polley dam in the Cariboo region of B.C burst. Four days later, the four kilometer sized tailings pond had sent its’ 10 billion liters of water and 4.5 million cubic meters of metals-laden fine sand into Polley Lake. Like a nightmarish game of dominoes, its impact was felt hundreds of kilometers away along the Fraser River, home to one of the largest Chinook runs on the west coast.

It’s been called the biggest environmental disaster in British Columbia’s history, and it could be decades before the full effects are felt and realized as the metals embed themselves in the environment and climb the stairs of the food chain, magnifying their impact with every step. This is the inheritance of the Cariboo region descendants. The guiltless victims of the four horsemen we worship; progress, profit, power, and greed. Like Prince William Sound, the region will never be the same again, the casualties of practices deemed safe and environmentally friendly.

“I apologize for what happened,” Imperial Metals president Brian Kynoch said following the breach. “If you asked me two weeks ago if this could have happened, I would have said it couldn’t.”

How hollow and pointless. Yet in not so many words he admits what we already knew, that open pit mines on this scale are incapable of ensuring the protection of the natural world around them. Since 2012, Imperial Metal had received five citations of violation, the engineering company that designed the pond warned them that the pond was operating beyond capacity and pulled out of the mine operation 3 years before the catastrophe with no explanation.

Mr. Kynoch, you knew this could happen, but it’s tough to hear with gold in your ears and copper in your eyes. All this done in a place with an exponentially larger population density than their recently open mine in Red Chris along a tributary of the Stikine River. Yes, no criminal charges, no moratorium on development, Imperial Metal was allowed to plow forward and put the well being of the salmon and the Alaskans that thrive on them in their greedy hands.

When it comes to environmental issues, Alaskans are often divided. The refuge, offshore oil, and other controversies have split us into the unyielding camps of Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, progressive and tree hugger. But when it comes to salmon, we have been united. We have pushed and will continue to fight the threat of the Pebble Mine development in Bristol Bay, saying no to short term financial gains in favor of the most productive and healthy Sockeye Salmon fishery in the world.

It is vital that we fight again, that these salmon streams, our home, our way of life remains as unspoiled and protected as possible. The alternative is unthinkable. A CEO two decades from now, standing at a podium, offering empty words of regret as mine tailings and acid drainages rush down the Taku to meet the Sockeye. For Imperial Metals they will simply state their sorrow, pack up, and head for the next deposit, leaving us and our descendants to pick up the shattered pieces of existence.

For Americans and Canadians alike who wish to get involved, visit.

http://www.salmonbeyondborders.org/what-you-can-do.html

The Southern Residents and Repeating History

Off the waters of Washington state live the most magnificent, beautiful, and intelligent creature on the planet. A species that has learned to exist without wars or visible disputes of any kind. They maintain a peaceful, complex, and intricate social structure with bonds that we cannot even begin to fathom. And it is all in danger, of vanishing forever. For many it’s already too late. Like Rhapsody, whose body has gone to science in the hope of finding out what ended her life.

It is all so chilling because it’s not the first time that this story’s been told. In the serene and beautiful waters of Prince William Sound, hundreds of miles to the north, the same tragedy is playing with a 20-year head start. The genetically unique AT1 Transient pod, that has lived, stalked, and hunted within the sound for generations is just years from extinction as it comes up on three decades without a successful birth. For AT1, the prognosis is simple and obvious. On good Friday, 1989, the whole pod swam, unknowingly through the lethal slick of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. They have not reproduced since as friends and researchers like Eva Saulitis watch the pod disappear one by one, a slow tear jerking countdown to zero.

For the southern Residents, it’s more complicated. For decades they’ve endured live captures, bullets, overfishing, and the toxic runoff of the increasingly urban Puget Sound. In many ways it’s miraculous they’ve persevered for so long. They can still lay claim to, “Granny.” An orca that was born the same year the Titantic sank and is still seen every year off the San Juan Islands, a talisman to the resilience of the community. And yet, Orcas are dying that shouldn’t be. When Plumper (A37 of the northern Residents) finally vanished from the lab’s view in August 2014, there was such a finality to what we were seeing. It was his wake. His time had come, and all of us, including him and his brother Kaikash seemed to know it. But sweet 18-year old Rhapsody shouldn’t be washing up in Comox. She should be with her mother, siblings, Grandmother, and Aunts, with one or perhaps two calves to her name. This wasn’t her time and it’s hard not to feel guilt, knowing that our species shoulders the blame for her demise and dozens just like her, whether from captivity or PCBs.

The southern Residents are at 77 individuals. The time has come for drastic action before the genetic bottleneck tightens anymore. So that in 20 years, we’re not watching the last of the pod fade into darkness, leaving the waters of the San Juans and Puget Sound in great silence. How empty and desolate it would feel. Imagine Orcas Island with no Orcas. It’s not impossible, the only place in California you can find a brown bear is on the state flag.

It may mean sacrifices on the part of us as human beings. To surrender the pleasure and joy that only comes from watching a line of dorsals materialize off the bow of your boat or kayak. Or perhaps going without Chinook salmon in the freezer this winter. Or maybe as simple as riding the bus to work and reducing the carbon exhaust pumped into the atmosphere.

These aren’t tigers or elephants, we can’t just start captive breeding programs and reintroduce them. But they do need help, and we have a chance, maybe not to make amends, but to right some of the wrongs that we’ve brought against them. To even the playing field as best we can for a species that doesn’t deserve the cards we have dealt. North American progress, american history as a whole, has been filled with extinctions, manipulations, and destruction. We’ve hunted the Gray whales, sea otters, wolves, and now the Orca. But today sea otters again bob in the waters off of Monterey Bay, wolves run through the forests of Yellowstone, and North Pacific gray whales represent one of the healthiest and strongest whale populations in the world as they continue their amazing recovery from industrial whaling.

I don’t think it’s too late for Rhapsody’s kin. But it is time to try something different, because whatever help we’re giving them clearly isn’t working. They need time, space, and most importantly, the salmon that make up more than 90 percent of their diet. Save the whales doesn’t have to just revoke memories of Greenpeace and the 70s. The war is not over, and it is our time to fight for the animals we love.

Patches the Sea Lion: Part II

Patches skimmed the steep rock face just below the surface of the waves. Every now and than his whiskers tickled as they brushed against the rocks. He pumped his flukes and rode the growing wave that his body created. Taking the corner of the cove as fast as he could, Patches sent waves crashing onto the rocks, soaking a gull that squawked at his boisterous entrance. Gulls amused Patches more than any other creature. Bobbing arrogantly on the surface, completely unconcerned until you surfaced near them, causing them to cry out and fly away in a flurry of indignation because you had the nerve to breath.

Patches broke the surface and grabbed a quick breath, feeling the mist of his exhalation run across his exposed back. The gash still throbbed from where the sea lion had fallen on it earlier and he noticed that it was bleeding again. It had been a month since the injury and it still protested at the mildest irritation. He hoped that it would begin to scab over and heal soon, the thought of maneuvering around the colony all winter with it and feeling the cold wind against his exposed blubber was not appealing. But for now he would just have to continue to live with it, and it certainly didn’t stop him from hunting.

Like most sea lions, Patches wasn’t all that picky about what he ate. He was a decent fisherman as far as sea lions go, though he still struggled to catch the ultimate prize, salmon. But bottom fish, crab, and herring were all easy enough to grab, and filled him up reasonably well. But he felt his body desiring the fatty meat of the salmon that continued to run past the rookery and knew he would need to start catching more to get through the winter. As quietly as he could Patches dove and entered the mouth of the cove. The water was shallower in here, and he could see clearly thirty feet in front of him, his world a greenish, aqua tint as rays of light from above reflected and stabbed the waving kelp fronds. It was here, Patches knew, the silver flashes of salmon could be found. They would seek shelter in the kelp beds to rest, relying on their maneuverability to wiggle through the stalks of kelp to stay a step ahead of the monstrous male sea lions that hunted in the deeper waters just fifty feet away.

But Patches had no trouble squirming among the kelp, and it was here that he had the most success hunting salmon. Many of the younger sea lions too, would work the kelp bed just off the rocks directly below the humans platform that overlooked the ocean. As the tide rose it was often necessary to pass directly below this platform, just feet from where they stood. The larger sea lions flatly refused to go near. Everything about the land seemed to terrify them and at least once a week at the rookery, one would let out a terrified roar and scramble for the ocean, unconcerned with anyone in his path. In the interest of preservation all before him would run for the ocean, trying to stay out of the way of his surprisingly agile bulk. It would than take them hours to get back onto the rocks.

The young sea lion wove through the kelp, head turning constantly as if on a swivel, his stomach growling. As he came out of the kelp bed and made a slow turn to go back the other way towards the cove, he felt something disturb the water next to him. He looked back to his left and saw that he was not alone. A harbor seal cruised peacefully in his slipstream, looking up at him expectantly. Patches had heard of this behavior but had never actually been followed by a harbor seal before. They would often trail a sea lion closely, scooping up scraps or the chance to clean up a whole fish if the sea lion missed his original lunge. But he had no intention of sharing any fish that he got, but for now, the little guy wasn’t bothering him at all.

The pair traced the kelp bed three more times, all to no avail. With a disappointed look, the harbor seal turned and dove for deeper water, skimming the ocean floor for crab. It wasn’t a bad idea, thought Patches, clearly the kelp bed was depleted of everything but sea urchins, and he wasn’t that hungry yet. But just as he rose to grab a breath before heading for deeper water, he saw it. A salmon cautiously glided into the kelp directly ahead of him, floating silently near the surface, the kelp fronds waving back and forth, obstructing his view. His heart raced as he swam slowly and quietly below the fish until he was directly below it. He hadn’t taken a breath and his lungs were beginning to ache. If he was going to strike he had to do it soon, but the kelp was still in his way. He floated on the current a few feet further, feeling the rocks scrape against his belly as the salmon slowly came back into view. The current shifted and the fronds were pulled the other way, exposing the fish. Sensing the change in the water, the salmon twitched, its’ wide unblinking eyes darting left, right, and down.

With all his strength Patches launched himself upwards, his eyes focused, the fish filling his mind. With a powerful flick the salmon bolted forward just as Patches closed his jaws. He felt scales rip off in his mouth, tasted the slimy texture on the back of his throat, and felt the fish slipping through. With a bolt of panic he snapped down and his teeth punctured skin, his mouth full of the salmon’s tail. The fish wiggled but Patches had him in his powerful canines as he ripped his head back and forth, feeling his body break the surface.

He broke the fish into bits, hearing the the squeals of the gulls all around him, snatching at pieces of his precious lunch. In three quick gulps Patches managed to get most of the fish down. Pride swelled inside him as three other sea lions raced up, eyes groping the water column for scraps. But they were too late. Patches floated at the surface, finally having a chance to catch his breath, feeling the sun warm his body as he stuck his flukes straight in the air. He drifted serenely in the current, in no real hurry to go anywhere with his belly full of fish.

Face to Face

A seal bobs in the shallows of the cove next to our house. Floating silently, big wide eyes fixed on the rocks and washed up logs in the back of the cove. Where there’s seals there’s usually fish and I rush out the door, grabbing the net leaning against the wall that we always have close at hand. I pick my way down the beach, stepping and sliding over logs, their surfaces slick with rain. I clamber over one and try to push myself up, my hand slips, coming away with some nasty slime coating my palm. But after wearing the same pants for a week a little tree slime seems irrelevant and I wipe it on my pants leg.

The fish love to take shelter in the shallows, even huddling under the logs when they float on the high tide. It’s an aquatic Easter egg hunt and I peer under log after log, looking for a dark shadow, a burst of blue, a hint of silver. I find nothing as I near the far side of the cove. I look out over the water, the seal has vanished like a phantom beneath the waves. There are no sea lions, no humpbacks, just the lapping of the waves. I balance on a floating log and continue to pry the water with my eyes, the net held loosely at my side. The rain that has been falling for three days begins again, and with it the rush of wind, the beginning of a 30 knot storm that would blow in before the night was done, pinning Paul and Helena in Alert Bay for another day.

I reach the last fallen tree and gingerly step off, hearing the rock crunch against my feet, my toes tingling from the cold. I’d gone over the top of my XtraTufs putting the boat away last night and the insides are still lined with sea water. The sun disappears behind the clouds, concluding it’s brief appearance for the day, the solar panels have had little to do this week, but we’ve been keeping the generator plenty busy.

Something large moves in the shallows, than a flash of silver. At my feet is a salmon. Adrenaline rushes, my eyes wide. The chum is laying on its side mouth working feverishly, passing as much water as possible through its gills. One wide unblinking eye stares up at the sky and into the heavens. He’s dinner. I pull the net out, and take a step towards him, this was too easy. But something large and gray slithers across the submerged portion of the nearest log, making me stop my approach.

It’s a harbor seal, maybe five feet away, it’s belly dragging against the rocks of the shallows, whiskers a yard from the fish. It had to know I was there, his sharp ears and wide eyes would have told him long before he reached this point. And yet there he floated, trusting me. For the briefest moment I’m conflicted. Two steps, a yell, and a quick move of the blue net and the fish was mine. And yet, what would that say about me? What kind of man would I be to callously shove this seal aside so that I could have what it had chased. How was that any different from the profit hungry oil company, banging on the doors of the refuge? The hunter on Baranof Island, murdering a bear for its fur. This fish wasn’t meant for me and I knew it. I may want it, but I didn’t need it. I look down at the seal, still floating there, a wave hits shore and almost carries the pinniped into my feet, I’ve gone over the tops of my boots again.

Finally, the seal turns his head, and looks straight into my eyes. For the briefest moment we’re connected. What must he be thinking. Many of my species would call him a pest, destroying nets, eating fish. God forbid that he live the way a seal’s supposed to live. And yet here he was, giving me a chance to do the right thing. Nature once again, giving us a chance to make amends. It was my turn to represent mankind to the animal kingdom, I didn’t want to disappoint.

“Go ahead,” I whisper, “take it, it’s your fish.” The seal turns away and with one movement, delicately grabs the fish by the tail and pulls it back into the deep water. I watch the little gray torpedo depart, gliding serenely through the waves, the fish clenched in his teeth. Ten feet from shore he surfaces, his head turned back toward shore. The tail hangs out one side of his mouth and he hovers for a second, starring at me, and is swallowed up by the sea.