In Vancouver Review, Summer, 2011.
Mr. Graham, who is erecting a saw mill on Burrard Inlet, has just given us an interesting description of one of those mythological marine mammals which he saw on Monday week in the Gulf of Georgia, about midway between the Inlet and the mouth of the Fraser.
It was about 6 o’clock P.M., when he saw it gradually rise above the surface of the water within about 30 yards of where he was, showing the entire bust, in which position it remained for the space of five minutes looking in the direction of the boat in which he and two Indians were sitting, when it slowly sank into its native element.
The Indians evinced considerable alarm at the strange phenomenon. Mr. Graham describes it as having the appearance of a female with long hair of a yellowish-brown tinge drooping over its shoulders, the color of the skin being a dark olive. The Indians have a legend that if this animal is seen and not killed those by whom it is seen will pine away and die, and relate an instance of the kind as having occurred amongst the Squamish Indians at the sight of the one alluded to.
They also state that many years ago one was killed on Squamish River by an aged Indian.
“A Mermaid in the Gulf,” The Columbian newspaper, June 27, 1863.
Something extraordinary occurred. About that everyone agrees. Nearly a century and half after Mr. Graham saw his mermaid, in exactly the same stretch of water off Point Grey, the sea was roiling with an amount of sockeye salmon roughly twice the weight of the human population of Vancouver. Listening to the CBC’s Vancouver broadcasts in the late summer of 2010 was like listening to that Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast of Sunday, October 30, 1938. Monsters from Mars were taking over the earth. People believed it. Only in the summer of 2010, the news reports weren’t faked. There were thousands of witnesses.
From Spanish Banks to Halibut Banks, all the way around to Musqueam and out into the Strait as far as the eye could see, the ocean surface was alive and seething with sockeye. Nobody had seen anything like it in their lives.
As the ides of August turned to September, gillnetters were pulling into the docks at Steveston with sockeye loaded to the gunwhales. There were so many sockeye that the fishing companies couldn’t handle the volume and had to ship fish to freezer plants in Prince Rupert and Seattle. The sockeye kept coming, leaping and splashing across the Strait of Georgia like drops of rain on the surface of a lake. The best scientists that the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans could muster had no way of explaining any of it. They still don’t.
There were so many sockeye that late one night after stumbling out of the Bent Mast pub in Victoria and clattering down Menzies Street to Dallas Road at Holland Point Park, in a rainy breeze from out in Juan de Fuca Strait, I could actually smell them coming. It was that unmistakable, rich, intoxicating, maddening ambrosia smell of the coast. I was with Harold Rhenisch, one of the few poets who still pays attention to these kinds of things. There had been a great deal of drink taken but it didn’t deaden the shock of the smell of all those salmon.
On our swagger towards the waterfront we’d stopped at streetlights to refer back to North West, which is Harold’s Ulysses, with the rain soaking the pages of the draft he’d brought along to the pub. It’s a confounding and ambitiously rambling work that Harold’s been toiling at for years, letting pieces of it go now and then to win the Malahat Review Long Poem Prize and the CBC 2007 Literary Prize. Bits of it have shown up in anthologies by Mother Tongue and Country Lights and Ronsdale Press. It was still very much a work in progress that night in Victoria but it will do for our purposes here to cite these
oldest of travellers, carrying the moon home at last, after such a long journey, wrapped in red silk and the drumbeat of blood, after a hero’s journey, rising to Quesnel Lake, Adams Lake and Shuswap Lake
and on and on, because that’s what was happening in th late summer of 2010.
For 16,000 years since the first civilizations followed the salmon as they flooded the land and took the earth over in their name, and in the name of the cluster rose and the cypress, laid the first people open on branches of alder, the Heiltsuk, the Kwakwala, the Haida, the Nuu-chah-nulth, the Makah, the Halkomelem, the Tlingit, the Tahltan, the Cowichan, the Snohomish, the Sto:lo, followed the first people into the liquid tongue of the sun. . .
That may as well suffice to explain how the story started, too, because about 16,000 years ago another extraordinary thing occurred that the best scientists in the world haven’t come to any agreement about, except that it appears to have happened somewhere in the vicinity of the headwaters of the Lena River in the mountains surrounding the southern shores of Lake Baikal.
The region is conventionally situated in Siberia, but is perhaps better understood as the northern fringes of what used to be called Outer Mongolia. At some point long before the world was ordered into what we now recognize as animals and birds and people, there arose the ancestors of fishermen who show up about 9,000 years ago catching salmon in the Fraser Canyon near what is now Yale, cooking the fish with wild cherries.
While the 2010 Fraser sockeye were just juveniles, heading out to their ocean pastures, I was making my way from Irkutsk to a mysterious place called Chara, on Baikal’s southwestern shore. The four-hour journey in a cramped old Toyota through rolling steppe and forest country was enlivened by outbursts from the distinguished Russian historian at the wheel. He was being tormented by hallucinations from the concoction of absynthe and vodka he’d brought along to slake his unquenchable thirst. I will be gallant and leave his name out of it.
We were headed to Chara to camp at a sort of rough-and-ready tourist lodge with a couple of dozen paleoecologists, archeologists, geneticists, linguists, historians and anthropologists who had been brought together by Irkutsk State University to argue about who they were, those early Lake Baikal hunter-gatherers who left this strange country all those years ago to walk into the liquid tongue of the sun, and why they did so.
There were deliberations about the strangeness of local wolf burials and power-point presentations about mitochondrial DNA sequences that occur among North American aboriginal groups and the tribes of Kamchatka. There were discussions about the early Holocene hunting of Baikal seal (Phoca sibirica) and debates about whether peculiar gaps in the archeological record indicate one exodus from Baikal after another down through time or just lacunae in the available data. Nothing approaching a consensus emerged.
Neither is there anything in the origin sagas of the peoples whose territories encompass what is now Vancouver and the Fraser River watershed in which some epic journey from the headwaters of the Lena River might be discerned. There is the time before people and animals were sorted into separate taxonomies, and then there is the time after. The dividing line is the time of Khaals the Transformer, who brought order to the world.
The thing to keep your eye on for the moment, though, is that mermaid.
Notice mainly the bit about the Indians with Mr. Graham and their familiarity with such creatures, and the business about how encountering one and not killing it is to risk pining away and dying. As it happens, right around the time Mr. Graham reported having seen a mermaid off Point Grey, an old woman on the Coquitlam River is said to have died following an encounter with a water woman. Old Pierre, a Katzie shaman, told the story to anthropologist Diamond Jenness in 1936.
When Khaals reached the mouth of the Coquitlam River, a haughty character who shows up in Old Pierre’s story as Xwelta’meye boasted to him: “I am the leader of these people. The Lord above created me and there is no other equal to me.” So Khaals turned Xwelta’meye into a rock that sank to the bottom of the Coquitlam River at its confluence with the Fraser, and as he did this, Khaals told Xwelta’meye: “Whosoever sees you hereafter shall become crazy, for your words are foolish.”
Xwelta’meye’s sister flew into a rage, so Khaals condemned her to a fate like her brother’s. He raised his hand and ordered her to the Coquitlam’s headwaters, telling her as she vanished into the river that now and again she’d be permitted to descend the river to visit her brother. Old Pierre told Jenness that the woman still lived at the bottom of Coquitlam Lake. Then he said this:
About eighty years ago an old Indian woman lit a pitch-wood torch and went down to the Coquitlam River to draw water. She saw a wave coming up the stream, and behind it, walking on the bottom, a woman with long trailing hair. It was Xwelta’meye’s sister, returning from a visit with him.The old woman hurried home, related what she had seen, and fell dead.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot like Mr. Graham’s mermaid to me.
In any event, what we have here is a case of creatures whose phylum and genera are cryptozoological, and they might be said to be relict specimens from the Time of Khaals. You see them and you die, or you see them and you go crazy. Whatever Mr. Graham saw, it caused him to go a bit bonkers. There are no mermaids.
There are things that live and move underwater that are not cryptozoological. They were here and they were intimately acquainted with people before the Time of Khaals, at what we can confidently call the beginning of time, which, around Vancouver, can be placed at roughly 16,000 years ago, at the close the long winter of the Pleistocene.
Until time began, Vancouver had been covered by ice sheets more than a kilometre thick. With the ice gone, salmon from ice-age refugia as far away as the Lake Chapala watershed in Mexico began to colonize the rivers roaring out from underneath the receding glaciers around what is now Vancouver. Just as this happens, trees start growing, and recently-arrived people are here on the British Columbia coast to kill and eat salmon and to be made crazy by it all.
Maybe crazy isn’t the right word. But there was a time when “sockeye fever” was something you would read about almost every summer in Vancouver’s daily newspapers. The term is as old as the commercial salmon fishery. It denotes a kind of madness: a monomaniacal want of sockeye that cannot be satiated. It should be designated a compensible disease under Workers Compensation law. It drives people crazy: in spite of the bounty of 2010 there were great howls of outrage coming from the fishing industry that too many salmon were being allowed past, too many sockeye were being allowed to spawn.
Remember: the fishboats were nearly sinking from the sockeye. The Canadian Fishing Company, which accounts for more than half the commercial salmon production on the B.C. coast, was so bloated with salmon it didn’t know what to do with it all. Still, they all wanted more, and if they didn’t get more openings, industry bigshots warned, an ecological disaster would result.
All these milennia after Khaals, and only a year after the Great Sockeye Astonishment of 2010, almost every day, a troupe of lawyers, biologists, industry lobbyists, conservationists, tribal representatives and fisheries managers were traipsing down to 701 Georgia Street to push the elevator button to the 8th floor and sit themselves down in a courtroom and attend to proceedings underway under Part I of the Inquiries Act, Judge Bruce Cohen presiding. The whole thing is about Fraser River sockeye. Its terms of reference are established by Her Excellency the Governor General under the “Great Seal of Canada,” which makes it sound like Crown authority in this country is vested in a pinniped or a mermaid of some kind.
Day in and day out, there is evidence from expert witnesses summoned by the commission to be cross-examined by counsel for participants with official standing in the inquiry that include the mining giant Rio Tinto Alcan, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, several environmental organizations and tribal organizations, gillnetters, trollers, fish processors, fishing lodges, the federal government and the provincial government. Judge Cohen’s investigation began in November, 2009 with $15 million. He was later granted an extension and an infusion of another $10 million or so.
It gets better.
Judge Cohen is not being asked to inquire into where all those Fraser River sockeye came from in 2010. He is looking into “the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River.” It gets even better: The Fraser River’s sockeye salmon runs really are in decline. The Cohen Commission was established in the months before all those sockeye appeared to simply fall from the sky in 2010. At the time, the Fraser’s commercial sockeye fishery had been closed for three years running. In 2009, only about 1.7 million sockeye made their way home to the Fraser River spawning grounds. It was the smallest return on record. In 2010, the estimates are that 34 million sockeye showed up off point Grey, the biggest return since 1913.
But everything and nothing about salmon is always and never surprising at the same time. For instance, if you were to travel about 1,000 kilometres south of Lake Baikal, you’d end up in the Gobi Desert. Bear with me because this has everything to do with Fraser River salmon: winds carrying dust particles from the Gobi collude with volcanic eruptions in such faraway places as Kamchatka to seed the surface of the North Pacific with minute traces of iron. The iron nourishes microphytoplankton, which ignites phytoplankton blooms all around the Sub-Arctic Gyre.
This creates vast floating feedlots for the myriad species of microzookplankton, which graze upon and bloat from the phytoplankton and get eaten in their turn by zooplankton, which consequently multiply into inconceivably huge armadas of their own. This sets off population explosions of the tiny fish upon which salmon graze. When this happens, the fishing at the lodges up and down the coast is gangbusters, and that is the sort of weird music that determines the yearly abundance of salmon in the North Pacific.
There has been one explanation that cites a single cause for the 2010 event, and it involves this very same strange music. The hypothesis is as contentious as it is cogent and sensible. It comes from the University of British Columbia’s renowned biologist-oceanographer Timothy Parsons, who told the Cohen Commission last year that the key to the mystery might lie in a 2008 eruption of the volcanic island of Kasatochi, one of the most westerly islands of the Aleutian chain. The volcano’s ash set off a phytoplankton bloom more than 1000 kilometres from one end of it to the other. In 2008, the 2010 Fraser sockeye runs were in the vicinity, looking for zooplankton. They found lots. Their ocean survival rates went into the stratosphere. In this way, after a fashion, you might say that all those sockeye last year really did simply fall from the sky.
Or maybe not, because there weren’t any other dramatic wobbles in salmon abundance in 2010, and in any case it would be wrong to think that people have nothing to do with these things and that when salmon runs go into death-spiral declines we should just sit around cross-legged listening to the music of the spheres and waiting for Khaals to return and make sense of everything again. In 2008, the year before the Cohen Commission went to work, the all-nations catch of Pacific salmon was roughly a million metric tonnes. Try to glimpse in your mind’s eye the sight of about a million buffalo slowly grinding their way across the Prairies. There. Now you have an idea about how much salmon the commercial fleets hauled out of the Pacific in 2008, in weight. It was the largest catch on record.
I could also mention that it’s not just people that eat salmon. It’s also wolves, bears, whales, innumerable species of saltwater fish, coyotes, re-tailed hawks, flying squirrels, Stellar’s jays, seals, minks, and weasels. Robins, goldeneyes, dippers and wrens eat salmon eggs. Then there are salmon farms, there’s urban sprawl, increasingly lethal water temperatures and low water levels in the Fraser’s tributaries, the legacy of a century of lousy logging, and the other 997-odd cuts from which salmon populations are dying. Pacific salmon are already gone from about half their North American range.
But another thing happened in 2008 that was pretty well as unimaginable as the writhing shoal of sockeye that showed up in the Strait of Georgia two years later. That vast Belgium-sized patch of coast that we used to call The Jungles, but which we are now obliged to call, in whispered tones, the Great Bear Rain Forest, was strangely empty of salmon. All that environmentalist effort to establish ecopornographically idealized salmon spawning habitat, with the mist shrouded cedars and the rushing streams and eagles in the tree limbs, and it was a total bust. The bears and the wolves were starving.
But that same autumn, up in the bunchgrass and the mesquite at the top end of the Great Sonoran Desert, among the spadefoot toads and the prickly pear and the tiger salamanders and the sagebrush, in bat country where a sensible person will not imagine that salmon should be at all, 130,000 sockeye were spawning in a five-kilometre stretch of the Okanagan River, most of it within the Osoyoos Indian Reserve.
To get home, the Okanagan sockeye had to arise from the furthest reaches of the North Pacific just south of the far Aleutians, not far from Kasatochi Island (before it blew its stack), somehow make it all the way to the mouth of the Columbia River without getting caught. Then they had to barrel up into the most browbeaten and busted river system on North America’s west coast. Then they had to traverse nine massive mainstem hydroelectric dams on the Columbia. Then, after they turned left up the Okanagan just downstream of the Chief Joseph Dam, after all that, half of them died from the heat and the deadwater of Osoyoos Lake. And still, in August and September of 2008, they spawned in numbers no one alive had ever seen.
It makes no sense. But you’d have to be a bit nuts to expect it to make any sense at all.
Looking back at only the most recent eruptions of sockeye fever, we can start with 1992. That was the year we were all subjected to an industry horror campaign waged in response to the 1990 Supreme Court of Canada Sparrow decision. In 1992, Ottawa was allowing some of the Lower Fraser tribes to sell some of the fish they caught in their traditional fisheries. It was a year of ear-splitting “missing fish” alarms. The dailies were filled with stories about how the changed rules in the aboriginal fisheries had caused a “major biological crisis” and a “real biological disaster” for Fraser River sockeye stocks.
When all the shouting had died down and the headline writers had found other outrages to occupy their talents, the Pearse-Larkin inquiry found that the numbers of sockeye that made it home to their spawning grounds in 1992 were exceeded only once on that cycle year in half a century. Still, on the grounds of the legislature in Victoria, there were demonstrators carrying signs that read “Fraser River Salmon –RIP 1992.”
Two years later there was a “fish war” between Canada and the United States after a breakdown in negotiations over the share of the Fraser River sockeye catch. There was yet another inquiry. The Fraser River Sockeye Review Board found that a 1994 fish-war outbreak, combined with overconfident reliance on federal fisheries scientists’ forecasting models and in-season run-size estimates and so on, had so imperiled the Fraser River’s sockeye runs that “one more 12-hour opening could have virtually eliminated the late run of sockeye in the Adams River.”
But the grandchildren of the 1994 sockeye returned in 2002, and this time the screaming was that an “ecological catastrophe” had befallen the Adams River sockeye run, the Fraser River’s biggest sockeye population, because commercial fishermen hadn’t been allowed to catch enough of them. Too many salmon had been allowed to spawn, we were told. So there was another federal review. The whole ritual was performed all over again. Many recommendations were made and much sober language was employed. But as things turned out, the 2002 “catastrophe” somehow produced a healthy return in 2006, and those were the fish begat the 2010 spectacle, and the people rejoiced.
After a while the punctuated rhythm of these lunatic outbursts becomes so predictable you can almost set your watch by it. It’s like the Nine O’Clock Gun, that loud noise Vancouverites hear every evening at precisely 9 o’clock. Nobody gives it a second thought but it is worth remembering that as the story goes, the cannon was first fired in 1894 to signal the close of salmon fishing in Burrard Inlet, only back then it was the 6 O’Clock Gun, and it was fired only once a week, which should tell you something about how much fish we used to catch.
It was in those final years of the 19th century that a young fisheries officer with the unlikely name of David Salmond Mitchell was working on an assignment from the Dominion Fisheries authorities to assess the sockeye spawning and rearing capacity of the tributaries of Adams Lake and Shuswap Lake. Steering his little steam launch across Shuswap Lake one late summer evening, Mitchell dropped anchor just a short distance up the Salmon River. It was a bright moonlit night. Mitchell wrapped himself in his blankets and fell asleep.
In the grey of early morning I was aroused by a commotion and found the river full of sockeye running upstream,” Mitchell wrote in an unpublished 1925 manuscript. “I put in an oar and felt that the river was half fish. The increasing light showed that it was red from bank to bank. Then a stampede or a panic occurred, and salmon came surging down, but the river was so full of ascending fish they they blockaded and made a great flat wriggling dam. So jammed were they that they crowded out and were pushed up the sloping banks out of the water.
Where the banks steepened, these struggling, flapping fish were rolled down onto the backs of the fish in the riverbed below, into the mass of which they would again sink. The boat was on fish, on a red, flapping, squirming mass. . .
These were the days before 1913, the year that Canadian Pacific Railway crews blasted the side of a mountain into the Fraser at Hell’s Gate. During the huzzahs of 2010, by the time federal fisheries biologists got around to reckoning the Fraser sockeye run strength at 34 million fish, it was commonplace for journalists to report that the sockeye return was the biggest since the Hell’s Gate disaster of 1913. What tended to get overlooked was that in 1913, almost the entire biomass of Fraser River sockeye – roughly 32 million fish – was caught by Lower Fraser commercial gillnetters long before any of the sockeye made it as far as Hell’s Gate.
Nobody knows how big the runs were before 1913, but the eminent fisheries scientist W.E. Ricker reckoned that the big-year Fraser sockeye runs easily numbered 50 million fish. And that’s just sockeye.
“No less interesting than the sockeye run up the Fraser have been the meanderings of steelheads up a crooked brook which passes under the the Marine drive near Johnson Road.” Headline: “Run of Steelheads Still Continuing.” Dateline: Kerrisdale, Point Grey, December 1, 1912. In 1978, the Vancouver Aquarium published a kind of Book of the Dead, an inventory of the 120 kilometres of salmon streams that once existed within Vancouver’s city limits. Just one such stream was Brewery Creek. You can still hear it burbling if you listen close enough above a storm drain cover at 31st Avenue, opposite St. George Street. Chum salmon used to spawn under the streetlights along Third Avenue in Kitsilano. Schoolkids from Mount Pleasant Elementary used to gaff coho salmon out of a ditch at Glen and Seventh Avenue.
There was China Creek, Ross Creek, Tatlow Creek, Vivian Creek, and on and on, well into the 20th century. There was pink, coho, chum and steelhead. Gerry Harris, the federal fisheries technician who compiled the aquarium’s 1978 report, reckoned there were probably on the order of 100,000 salmon that spawned in these creeks. They are not there anymore, but they are there. It is a completely pointless exercise, but even now, every night at 9 O’clock, Parks Board employees light a gunpowder charge, bang, like the Last Post fusillade in a military salute to a fallen soldier. It’s a bit crazy. It’s just one of those things that Vancouver people do.
Last October I was summoned to give evidence before the Cohen Commission on the public interest in salmon conservation and the broader cultural implications of the Commission’s work. I took as my starting point the seminal paper by the fisheries scientists Gordon Hartman, Cornelius Groot and T.G Northcote titled “Science and management in sustainable salmonid fisheries: the ball is not in our court.”
Their point: “If there is to be a reprieve for Pacific Northwest salmonids, it must come in the form of initiatives that reach into areas of society beyond fisheries science and management.” My point: British Columbian society – which is to say all those perfectly ordinary British Columbians whose values are well beyond the reach of fisheries science and management – is getting wise to all this. We have become acutely aware that the commercial fishing industry is not our landlord, but our tenant.
We have already made quite a few tradeoffs in the matter of conserving the biological diversity of salmon. Canadian taxpayers have also traded off something like a half a billion dollars over the past 20 years or so, all in the effort to keep the industry afloat. That’s more than we’ve got in return, in the form of the cumulative landed value of wild salmon. We don’t even mind. It’s just that we no longer expect the commercial salmon fishery to either pick our pockets or butter our bread.
I might have mentioned that if there is to be any reprieve for wild salmon, it will come in such forms as Harold Rhenisch’s long poem, North West.
The entire commercial salmon fishing industry, combined with the recreational salmon fishery – the whole ridiculous and splendid edifice that occupies so much of our attention – now accounts for less than one per cent of the Gross Provincial Product. Even so, in April this year, a province-wide Angus Reid poll commissioned by the Watershed Watch Salmon Society and SkeenaWild Conservation Trust found that wild salmon are as culturally important to British Columbians as the French language is to the people of Quebec. Eight-nine per cent of poll respondents said laws meant to protect salmon habitat should be more strictly enforced, and 86 per cent agreed that “economic growth and development should not come at the expense of wild salmon habitat.”
We need no “wake-up call” about the calamities that have befallen Pacific salmon. We have the 9 O’Cock Gun, thank you very much. We are not crazy. We hear it every day.
Everybody knows there is no Great Seal. There are no mermaids. There is only a fish that swam at the vortex of the aboriginal cosmologies of the salmon civilization that sprang up here thousands of years ago. The fish has begun the work of colonizing the settler consciousness. It has been happening for a long time now. The symptoms can sometimes present as a kind of craziness. It isn’t craziness. It’s totally crazy. It is a catastrophe. There is no catastrophe.
The salmon are disappearing. There are more salmon than we know what to do with. We are on a long, long journey, walking into the liquid tongue of the sun.
Get your head around that and you’ll be just fine.