Celebrating the salmon: The remarkable life of British Columbia's iconic symbol

Photo of Gemma Nisbet

It's not easy being a Pacific salmon, as any visitor to British Columbia will quickly discover. 

Spend any time at all in British Columbia and you’re virtually guaranteed to leave knowing far more about the life cycle of the salmon than when you arrived.

Pacific salmon, you’ll realise, hold a special place in British Columbians’ hearts — so much so that in 2013 they were named the province’s official fish emblem.

As Terry Lake, the environment minister at the time, put it: “There is no symbol more iconic of British Columbia.”

Part of this relates to their significance to the culture of local First Nations people, to BC’s economy and to the overall health of the ecosystems they inhabit.

But just as important is the tenacity they represent. For, as more than one local will likely tell you, it’s not easy being a Pacific salmon.

Let’s start at the beginning. The term Pacific salmon, as it’s used around here, generally refers to seven different species that live in local waters: the sockeye, chinook, coho, pink and chum salmon, as well as the closely related steelhead and cutthroat trout.

They’re hatched in nests, known as redds, containing hundreds of eggs in fresh streams and rivers in the province’s mountains. Depending on the species, they may head off downstream immediately or spend up to a year maturing before they swim to the Pacific.

Here is the first big challenge for our emblematic fish: they have to go from living in fresh water to the salty sea. After this, the salmon may spend as many as seven years living in the Pacific, travelling as far as California’s central coast and the east coast of Siberia.

Then it’s time for the really difficult part: to return to fresh water to reproduce, navigating by smell to return to the place where they were spawned. 

To have made it this far is an achievement in itself — according to the Vancouver Aquarium, fewer than 2 per cent of the salmon hatched in any one redd will return to spawn.

And yet this epic journey isn’t the whole story. Humans have disrupted the salmon’s life cycle in numerous and often serious ways, through overfishing and the destruction of habitat but also by building dams right in the fishes’ way.

One example is the Cleveland Dam in northern Vancouver, which was constructed in the early 1950s to supply drinking water. This created the Capilano Reservoir — and an insurmountable obstacle for the salmon attempting to migrate up-river to breed.

As the local salmon population suffered, a number of solutions were proposed. According to the guide who is showing us around today (as part of a day tour with local company Landsea), one trialled in the 1960s saw the mature salmon captured in nets and released on the other side of the dam — a comic visual image, but in reality too stressful for the fish.

The eventual fix was to build a fishway, a flight of underwater steps that the salmon can navigate. Alongside this is a hatchery that helps boost fish numbers by protecting the eggs and hatchlings (known as fry) from predators.

These days you can visit the Capilano Salmon Hatchery, in the midst of the scenic Capilano River Regional Park, for free. 

Depending on the time of year, you’ll see the surprisingly hefty salmon surging up the fishway, which has transparent viewing panels along one side.

Our guide tells us the facility has increased spawning rates by 85 per cent — and it’s not just the salmon and the humans who eat them that benefit. Supporting the salmon population strengthens the wider ecosystem, providing food for predators such as bears and eagles while dispensing nutrients to the plants and trees along the river via the salmon droppings in the water.

Still, I hesitate to cheer on the salmon as they make muscular leaps up the fishway. 

You see, Pacific salmon are semelparous, which means that after they spawn, they die. 

It’s like the locals say — it’s not easy being a Pacific salmon.

(Picture at top by Destination Canada.)

Fact File


Gemma Nisbet was a guest of Tourism Vancouver and Rocky Mountaineer.


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