There are few fish with enduring connections to humanity like the salmon. Debris from their bones have been found in many French caves, showing their place as a favorite food source of Paleolithic and Plinian peoples. The first depiction of salmon, and one of the earliest of any fish – L’Abri du Poisson - was a stone carving from twenty-five thousand years ago found in Southern France near the Vezere River.
The oldest known salmon in the fossil record, Eosalmo driftwoodensis, lived during the Eocene epoch and was found in Driftwood Provincial Park, near Smithers, British Columbia, Canada. This particular species was shown to be completely freshwater dwelling, and had not yet developed the anadromous qualities - hatching in fresh water, migrating to the ocean, then returning to fresh watch to reproduce - which their modern descendants are known for.
Folklore says that individual fish will return to the exact spot where they were hatched to spawn, and tracking studies have shown this to be mostly true. Their homing behavior is dependent upon olfactory memory.
It is this part of salmon’s biology that has made them so pivotal and venerated by cultures across time. Their bodies represent a transfer of nutrients from ocean to forest, making them a keystone species, particularly for the indigenous coastal people of the Pacific Northwest. The Haida nation refer to them as tsiin, and prepare them smoked, baked, friend, and in soups. Though salmon were not just seen a food source, but also as spiritual guides which lead to the population developing generations of ecological preservation methods surrounding them.
In Europe, Atlantic salmon were found in equal abundance to their Pacific cousins. The ancient Celts described them as keepers of wisdom, and Romans prized them in their Gallic and British provinces. Pliny the Elder, a Roman scholar, wrote of them in his Historia Naturalis, saying “salmon are the most esteemed of fishes…”
Regulations on salmon fishing date back as far as 1030 AD. In 1406 AD the King of Scotland set a closed fishing season in Scottish rivers, which persisted for over 400 years. Despite these initial protections and abundance, salmon populations began to decline rapidly as human populations rose, specifically during the Industrial Revolution.
“There is no end to the destructive appliances which man has brought to bear against this lordly fish.” – Daniel B. Fearing, 1876, Treasures of the Deep
Due to increase in factories, dams, pollution, sewage, and poaching salmon were almost entirely extinct in all English rivers by the end of the 19th century. Today they have all but disappeared from most every country in Europe.
The Coho salmon faced a similar fate along the California coast, with logging and human expansion bringing their original numbers down by more than 99% in less than 70 years, by 2006.
As a biological specimen, the salmon is as unique as its cultural history. They are a ray-finned fish of the family Salmonidae, alongside trout, char, grayling, and whitefish. There are seven species of Pacific salmon: chinook, coho, chum, sockeye, pink, masu, and amago, and a single species of Atlantic, named for its ocean.
Outside of being anadromous they are also semelparous, meaning they have a single reproductive episode before death, putting all available resources into maximizing reproduction at the expense of a future life.
Their eggs are laid in freshwater, most often at high altitudes. After hatching they remain in such rivers during their early life, before beginning a journey back toward the ocean, in which they will spend 1-5 years – depending on species – while they reach sexual maturity. Salmon are carnivorous, feeding on plankton when they are young; insects, small fish and vertebrates when older. Upon returning to their natal streams – sometimes traveling thousands of miles against the current - they spawn and then die, their bodies feeding the surrounding environment.
When it comes to feeding humans today around 99% of Atlantic salmon are farmed, while more than 80% of Pacific are wild-caught. Various farming methods have been developed primarily in Norway, Scotland, Canada, Chile, and the Faroes Islands. Though there is debate about their sustainability and continued research into better approaches. Worldwide salmon farming represents $10million annually in aquaculture.
While action is being taken to rework the farming industry and bolster wild populations, this most wise of fish still requires our protection and respect. It is in our best interest, if we wish to continue our ancient connection with this aquatic being - to follow the lead of the Haida nation with projects such as the Salmon Restoration Corporation which “conducts world-class marine research designed to understand oceanic trends…to foster and restore ocean health.”