The salmon has been an important part of Canadian culture since before the first salmon canneries appeared on the BC coast in the 1870s. Long ago, when the salmon began to spawn, native people from the North Pacific Coast would camp at river mouths. As the fish returned, it was harvested, cleaned and dried in the sun. Smokehouses were constructed to further cure the bounty for the coming winter months – an especially important part of surviving the often rugged and harsh Canadian winters.
Because of the large part salmon played in the survival of native peoples in Canada, the fish has a cultural and spiritual significance to First Nations people across the country – particularly on the west coast. There are songs, dances, visual arts and legends based on the lives of salmon.
Canada has 6 native species of ocean-going salmon: Sockeye, Spring, Coho, Pink, Chum and Atlantic. Apart from their significance to the First Nations peoples of Canada, why are salmon still so highly revered? In addition to their amazing red flesh and high concentration of nutritious omega-3 oils, the salmon’s life cycle is one of nature’s greatest wonders. Every year in the late summer and fall salmon return from the ocean, crowding up rivers and streams in the hundreds of thousands – each fish returning to the very spawning bed where that fish itself hatched – to lay and fertilize the eggs that produce the next generation.
There are many places in Canada where you can see the salmon spawning – something every Canadian should witness at least once in a lifetime. For places to view spawning salmon in Western Canada, check out this website. Government funding has helped to build fish ladders in several areas – these provide upstream passage for salmon over a dam or natural barrier that affects the advancement to spawning grounds. There are also many places to see spawning Atlantic salmon, spread out from Lake Ontario to Newfoundland. To find them, check with the local salmon conservation group. It is a beautiful and jaw-dropping event that is worth observing!
Photo credit: Matt Casselman