Salmon. Photo © Northwest Power and Conservation Council, via flickr and Creative CommonsRiver levels in southern B.C. are low, and their temperatures are warmer than normal. Fish are seeking shelter in deeper, larger, cooler pools wherever they can. With fish pooled in creeks and rivers, disease spreads more readily, and predators have an easier time making their catches of the day.

Returning salmon, of course, can’t choose to spend their final months hiding out in cool pools. Their biology drives them to reach their gravel beds of origin in time to spawn. While they may rest in deeper pools en route, the imperative sends them away from shelter into whatever channels contain enough water to allow them to fight their way upstream, no matter the water’s temperature.

Warm water causes fish to use more energy and tire faster. Warm temperatures can change freshwater chemistry, affecting the amount of oxygen dissolved in the water and available to fish and other critters. More »

bald eagle, by Mark Stephenson

Victoria Times Colonist, December 8, 2012—We’re in Courtenay at the end of this year’s salmon run. We’ve already seen two eagles fly over the Comox Air Force Museum like B-52 bombers with full payloads. From where we stand today on the banks of the Puntledge River, we spot three more birds of prey perched in trees overhead. The seagulls near us are in a post-feast daze, too full to fly, too full to eat.

A few salmon skitter through the shallows, but most lie dead and grey on the gravel bars.

“Such a waste,” says Nature Boy.

Nature Boy, decrying the natural cycle of life and death and organic matter! Can it be?

Then he says, quite testily, “Yes, yes, I know it’s not a waste. I was just thinking of how much salmon costs at the grocery store.”

These stinky fish corpses are—thank goodness!—food for thought today, not food for us. Instead, they’ll be feeding the forest around us. The salmon spend four years at sea gulping down ocean nutrients, then return to the river to spawn and die. Eagles, gulls, bears and other scavengers eat the ocean-fed carcasses, carrying them deep into the bush. There, what remains fertilizes the forest.

During the last decade, researchers at the University of Victoria have discovered salmon-derived nitrogen in trees, shrubs, moss, beetles and other insects. They’ve even found it in the feathers of songbirds that feast on the insects that feast on dead salmon.

Their work tracking salmon-nutrient cycling through coastal forests parallels research by others into how corn nutrients filter through the human food chain. Salmon confers a unique signature on its nitrogen. Carbon from corn likewise carries a molecular label that shouts “Corn!” to those equipped to read it. It shows up in corn-fed animals and in animals that eat corn-fed animals.

Including us. We North Americans nibble nachos and niblets like nobody’s business. We ingest dextrose, lecithin, high-fructose corn syrup, and other unpronounceable corn products. We feast on corn-fed beef, pork, and poultry, and on eggs, milk and cheese from those animals.

Apparently, as much as half of the carbon in the typical North American is corn carbon.

But there’s more about the food we eat staying with us and within us. Scientists in China have discovered genetic material from rice and vegetables circulating in the blood and tissues of humans and other animals.

If nutrients such as nitrogen and carbon are a body’s most basic ingredients, then genetic material provides the blueprint that dictates an organism’s design and the processes for assembling and maintaining an organism out of that raw “stuff.”

The genetic material in question here is microRNA. Ribonucleic acid—RNA—is critical to gene coding, decoding, control and expression. MicroRNAs—tiny snippets of RNA—help control cellular production of proteins, which do most of a cell’s work. The snippets amplify or dampen protein production, thereby affecting cell function and, thus, an organism’s development and health.

The researchers found 30 kinds of plant microRNAs in human and mouse blood and cells. The microRNAs come from rice, broccoli, cabbage and other vegetables.

The scientists are still determining how the plant molecules interact with animal genes, but some are apparently similar enough to mammal microRNA and abundant enough to affect protein production within our own cells.

Clearly, we have to watch what we eat. Literally. While it is inside us.

All this goes to show we each carry within us ghosts of repasts past, rattling our chains of DNA and RNA, haunting our health, and directing our cellular mechanisms into the future in ways we haven’t yet imagined.

It’s something to contemplate as the eagles and seagulls on the Puntledge River finish their feasting season and we embark on our own. With each mouthful, we will become those mouthfuls: ham, cheese, chicken, turkey, tart, fruit.


And because the pigs that become the ham we eat eat corn, and the cows that provide the milk that becomes the cheese we eat eat corn and the turkeys that become the drumsticks and leftovers we eat eat corn, we will remain corn-y, too.

… With a side of rice and veg.

… And salmon, too.


A version of this article appeared in the Victoria Times Colonist….

dead salmon, by Christopher Porter

Victoria Times Colonist, November 17, 2012—October’s turn in weather, bringing rain after months of sun and heat, has at last raised water levels  on the Cowichan River and cleared the way for the salmon.

How nice that something can enjoy the end to the glorious summer we had.

Just six weeks ago, the river nearly ran dry along some reaches. Salmon returning to the river found their passage upstream blocked by low water.

. Volunteers started rescuing the salmon. They trapped the fish, trucked them upstream, and released them at Sandy Pools and Skutz Falls.

But a month of rain has replenished river levels. I visited Skutz Falls a few weeks ago. There was still insufficient water to fill the fish ladders around the rapids, but Coho and Chinook were flinging themselves up the river’s natural white-water channels.

They are once again fulfilling their biological destinies by returning to their birthplace to reproduce.

And die.

The salmon’s instinctual call to destiny is a strange and wonderful thing. It places greater value on the interests of future generations than on any individual fish’s survival.

We could learn from that.

The problems on the Cowichan River stem from too much water being released via the Cowichan Lake weir earlier this year, leaving too little to buffer the river from severe drought six months later. But what happened here reflects river-flow problems across North America.

In Prince Edward Island, rivers were so low and warm this fall, fish became scarce. In the U.S., 160-kilometres of Nebraska’s Platte River dried up completely, and the mighty Mississippi fell by more than six metres.

Closer to home, below-average winter snowpack and months of dry, warm weather caused sections of rivers in the Peace Region to turn to mud and gravel. And on the Columbia River, annual flow has declined by more than 14 percent since 1950. One-third of the Columbia’s water originates in here in B.C.

What happens to the Columbia, the Kiskatinaw, the Moberly, the Beatton and the Cowichan can happen to the Fraser, the Skeena and, yes, the Goldstream and the Sooke.

After all, geologists report that Ontario’s Niagara and St. Clair rivers dried up completely 7000 years ago. A 25 to 40 percent decrease in annual precipitation and a 5o C rise in average temperatures caused water to evaporate faster from the Great Lakes than it was replaced. Lake levels dropped 20 metres, cutting off the rivers, shutting off Niagara Falls.

The study’s authors say similar temperatures and precipitation are within the range predicted for the region by 2100.

That is, what happened under climate change once can happen again.

Simon Fraser University researchers say we can expect a 20 percent drop in precipitation in B.C. by mid-century. Under climate change, spring and summer rains will decrease, and annual snow and ice accumulation in the province’s mountains and glaciers will decline. Glaciers store water in winter and release it slowly to rivers in summer. As glaciers disappear, late-summer river levels will fall drastically, right when demand for freshwater for agriculture, fisheries, industry and urban use increases.

Clearly, if these climate scenarios occur, B.C. rivers will experience increasingly difficult years.

British Columbians have always considered freshwater a renewable resource—one that falls from the sky like pennies from heaven. But when it ceases to splash down abundantly where and when it is needed, freshwater may become scarily scarce even here on the Wet Coast.

Kudos to the Capital Regional District for encouraging responsible water use. Despite a 14 percent increase in regional population, the CRD water board reports in its 2012 strategic plan that water use in the region has actually decreased by 11 percent since 2001. Seasonal watering restrictions, metering, rebates on water-efficient fixtures and appliances, and voluntary efficiency audits by businesses have brought about the gains, and will help extend our water supply.

However, more needs to be done by each of us.

It is time, while freshwater remains plentiful here, to learn from this year’s Cowichan River salmon, and reconsider how we each use and manage this resource now, so enough remains for future needs.

And for future generations of salmon.


A version of this column appeared in the Victoria Times Colonist.