Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Leaves not the only thing changing in autumn. So are B.C. Salmon

Canada’s beauty is abundant in autumn.  Everywhere you look there are splashes of color and changing landscapes.  The Western Larches in the Canadian Rockies begin their amazing transformation from light green to bright yellow in the fall. Changing leaves of red leaf maple, sugar leaf maple, white birch, aspen and red oak in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park cover the landscape in orange, red and yellow.  Up North, where daylight hours diminish, aurora borealis viewing returns and the white and blue lights once again dance across the sky.  Here on the BC coast, we too have a splash of color and if you get too close, you will likely get wet.

Annual BC salmon run

Every year, mainly in the fall, thousands of salmon return to the stream they were born to reproduce and die.  Their 4- 5 year life cycle and migration is remarkable and so are the conservation efforts to keep the salmon running for years to come.  I never get tired of learning about the salmon run.  This year, our attention was on the shape and color changes salmon undergo as they run up the stream. 

Most of the rivers on Vancouver Island have Chinook, Chum, Coho, Pink, and Steelhead but there are sockeye runs too.  The Sockeye Salmon have the most dramatic color change, from silver blue to deep red and places like the Fraser River and Adams River are the best places to check out the sockeye run.  The river we explored was the Little Qualicum River near Qualicum Beach, BC on Vancouver Island and the salmon were well on their way up river.  There were probably chinook, chum and steelhead swimming around but I am still learning how to recognize the difference.  What is neat about Little Qualicum River is there is a Department of Fisheries fish hatchery alongside the river and spawning channels that were created to ensure suitable water levels, flow, gravel river bottoms, and fish ladders that aid in salmon reproduction.  

Fish ladder in the spawning channel at Little Qualicum Fish Hatchery

There was not much color change happening with the leaves but the salmon were definitely changing and not just in color.  Color changes from the silver blue to darker colored patches, white spots, dark red and greenish yellow are to attract a spawning mate.  Standing above the spawning channels, the color change was noticeable as was their shape.  When salmon return to freshwater, they no longer eat and their stomach disintegrates leaving more room for eggs and sperm. Instead they live off of stored fat in tissue.  Could be one reason why the salmon look bloated but that is mainly due to taking in fresh water rather than sea water.  Salmon have a salt gland to extract salt to prevent dehydration.  Another characteristic change visible is males developing a hooked snout, or kype.  It is used to show off their dominance.  Some male salmon species also develop a hump on their back. 

After walking for over an hour around the spawning channel, I began to see the small color changes in each salmon.  Some were a dark grey solid color.  Some had patchy white spots.  A few even had shiny purple and yellow areas on their body.   

The changes were subtle but by no means does that dismiss the power and energy the salmon require to get here.  They are amazing creatures.

The transformations that occur in Mother Nature are truly spectacular and autumn is a great time to see it happen.  Spending a beautiful fall day exploring a new river and witnessing salmon fight their way up stream is a must do fall family outdoor activity on the west coast.  There are countless rivers on Vancouver Island where volunteer ran hatcheries exist and 15 fish hatcheries operated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.  Little Qualicum Fish Hatchery and Spawning Channels located at 1380 Claymore Road in Qualicum Beach, BC.

More B.C. Salmon blog posts:
Snorkel with the Salmon                A Salmon's Journey

With a KEEN eye, I patiently wait for fish to jump the ladder.

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