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October 21, 2012
VANCOUVER, BC, Oct. 21,2012/ Troy Media/ – It was a very hot, dry summer at Skelhp, the Sechelt dialect place name for the mouth of a magnificent inlet on BC’s sunshine coast. The rains of July finally abated almost on the morning of August 1, and they held off for all of August and September, and exactly half of October.
A normal Skelhp summer, based on the nine I have spent in her geographic embrace, would feature a July/August/September dry spell. Somehow the norm got bumped out a month this year. And there have been consequences.
Our neighbours over at Lang Bay noticed in September that the coho were not jumping in the surf off their beach. Usually September is the month that heralds the return of the pinks and coho to Lang Creek, which empties its waters into the estuary that opens up to Lang Bay. The jumping coho occasionally take a hook off our neighbours’ house, but this September very few were caught.
I visit the spawning beds of Lang Creek every week during the summer to witness the return of coho, pink, spring and finally chum salmon to their birthing gravels. Mid-September is usually a wonder of nature as thousands of coho and pinks pair up to lay their eggs. This September was eerily quiet. Barely 10 mating pairs of salmon finned and circled in the low waters of the spawning beds.
Eagerly on time and anticipating the bounty of the creek, the assorted fish ducks, great blue herons, bald and golden eagles, western crows and ravens were puzzling about, wondering where the protein was. The black bears were also lurking in the salaal and blackberries, just beyond the trails, snarfling and cracking branches. All of the predators were ready for prey that was absent.
Pink Salmon return on a two- year cycle, and coho on a four- year one. Natural variations in stocks occur for a variety of reasons. Every year isn’t a banner spawning event, but this September’s was the poorest in my nine years of close observations. It took me a few conversations to figure out a plausible reason why.
Another of my country neighbours, George, is a member of the B.C. Salmon Foundation, and an eager student of stream rehabilitation, fish hatchery programs and traditional ecological knowledge (he calls it ‘TEK’). He listened to my story about Lang Creek and said, ‘The waters are too low for the salmon to enter the creeks to spawn. They’re likely schooling up offshore, and biding their time waiting for the rains to come. They’re prepared by their genes to wait for higher water. They also know it’s too hot to spawn right now.’ This seemed logical to me, even though it was offered somewhat hypothetically.
I was digesting all of the ‘TEK’ in my head over Thanksgiving, when I decided to take my boat out to McRae Islets, a nearby haul-out for California sea lions. About 30 of these loud and social fish eaters hang out at the haul-out all year round, and their antics are fun to watch from a discrete distance. The young of last year are now swimming in small, gregarious groups, often right up to the stern, indicating that people are feeding them from boats.
As I approached the islets downwind, a wall of inescapable fish breath engulfed my boat. I counted over 50 sea lions on and around the haul-out. The big boys who clamber up to the top of the rocks are easily 400 plus pounds, and the dominant male at the very top was easily double that. In the mid-day sun they were lazing about digesting what must have been enormous meals. Of salmon?
After a slow encircling cruise around the islets, I headed back to the government wharf. En route I saw a great raucous gathering of herring gulls wheeling over a sea lion that was thrashing about right at the surface. I throttled back and watched. Up came a brown whiskered head, and extending tail first out of its jaws and gullet was a magnificent silver coho. The sea lion smashed the fish down on the water’s surface several times before the entire coho was swallowed in one gulp.
My suspicions were confirmed several more times on the trip home. About 10 sea lions had gathered at Skelhp to feast on the fish that were still waiting their chance to spawn when the rains finally return to the coast.
Troy Media syndicated columnist Mike Robinson has lived half of his life in Alberta and half in B.C. In Calgary he worked for eight years in the oil patch, 14 in academia, and eight years as a cultural CEO. Now back In Vancouver, he is still a cultural CEO, but also has business interests in a resource company and mutual funds.
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