It’s been said that wild Pacific salmon is the most precious resource on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Apart from the economic gain from the salmon sport fishing industry and commercial fisheries, the life cycle of the wild Pacific salmon is considered part of the culture on Vancouver Island and along the BC coast. In fact, in 2011 a survey found that BC residents consider salmon a ‘cultural touchstone’.
Over the years it has become increasingly important to protect and restore salmon runs to ensure our wild salmon stock is abundant. Becoming better stewards of the environment, decreasing pollution in local waterways, and supporting salmon enhancement projects are all ways we can help preserve our salmon.
There are five species of salmon on the west coast of Vancouver Island: Chinook, coho, chum, sockeye and pink. All of these species go through the same unique life cycle.
During spawning a female salmon will lay eggs in a little gravel depression they make with their tails on the floor of the creek or stream. The male salmon will leave it’s sperm on the eggs and in 6 to 12 weeks the eggs that survive the elements will hatch.
Newly hatched salmon are called Alevin. These little fish have a yolk sac attached to them still, where they get all the nutrients require to develop. In a few weeks the sac is absorbed and the fish start to swim freely, searching for food. At this stage they are called ‘fry’. Salmon fry will feed on tiny invertebrates and soon learn how to school together and hide from predators.
When they’re big enough they will start making their way to the ocean! They go through ‘smolting’ which allows them to live in salt water without absorbing the salt into their blood stream. When the salmon finally makes its way to the ocean it will usually have an extensive migration from two to five years depending on the species. This is when the salmon will grow, and gain weight.
At some point in a salmon’s adult life the homing instinct will kick in and they will begin to make the long journey back to their natal streams. The fish go through physical changes when they spawn. Sometimes they go from bright silver to a darker colour, or even a dramatic red colour. Some salmon will travel hundreds of miles upstream to return to the place it was born to lay eggs or milt. Watching the fish come upstream is a very cool experience.
Here is an education video about the life cycle of salmon:
You can watch this at the Thornton Creek Hatchery, located just 10km outside of Ucluelet. We have seen some anglers fish from shore 100 metres away from the hatchery and although they have caught a lot of fish, most are to be released. Salmon at this cycle of life tend to be a little ‘worn out’. Many chum salmon spend a few weeks around the mouth of Thornton Creek in the Ucluelet Harbour stirring up the muddy bottom of the creek mouth. Richard Smith from the hatchery told us that, “they are fun to catch but they taste like dirt!”
It’s important to understand our wild Pacific salmon and to truly know where our food comes from (and what it’s been through!). The next time you pull up the Catch of the Day with the Canadian Princess Resort you will know the unique life cycle of this fish, its importance in our economy, environment and culture. It makes us much more appreciative of catching and enjoying this amazing fish!