The disturbing realities of salmon

salmon dramatic
Salmon thinking that this water output valve is a waterfall they must jump. Oh salmon.

One of the great attractions of the Sacramento area in the Autumn is the salmon run. Irrespective of what that says about Sacramento, it’s an interesting thing to see, in no small part because the life of a salmon has been the inspiration for all manner of disturbing analogies across the annals of literature.

The Nimbus Fish Hatchery in Gold River, on the way out of Sacramento to the foothills, is the favored location for salmon run viewing in the area. That’s where these photos are from. The area was crawling with small confused children alternately repulsed and fascinated by the salmon on a recent Sunday, which is how all early life nature encounters should be.

The salmon life cycle resembles something out of Lovecraft’s more squicky novels. Born in rivers, salmon fend for themselves in fresh water streams until they are large enough to migrate all the way to the ocean. There, they grow into ocean-going adults if they manage to fend off the hordes of predatory animals — including human beings — that think they taste delicious with dill sauce.

informative fish head display
Giant salmon heads. Nothing to see here.

Once they have reached full adulthood, the siren call of the river beckons them back to their native home. This is an epic journey involving swimming upstream, battling powerful waters, and leaping in a floppy fashion up aquatic inclines, or fish ladders if they’re lucky. Some get eaten by grizzly bears. Some get eaten by anglers. Some get eaten by me, personally, after I have removed the shrink wrap.

No one  is entirely sure exactly how a fish not renowned for its towering, penetrating intellect manages to return to its birthplace well-nigh unerringly, but theories ranging from the salmon’s keen sense of smell to some stuff I don’t understand and will note even vaguely pretend to about geomagnetic and chemical cues have been bandied about. Irregardless. They manage it. They battle the waters and they manage it.

There is also some selection bias afoot here. What of the salmon who get lost and screw it up? What about Idiot Bob the Salmon? Does Bob the Salmon suddenly find himself flailing about in an estuary in Tahiti, instead of the mighty and temperate American River from which he came, and from which he should rightly return? These are important considerations.

seagulls waiting
Seagulls waiting near the fish ladder.

Once the Pacific salmon makes it home, the salmon do not nostalgically enjoy their birthplace. Their skin flakes off in great sheets and they grow splotchy and ragged looking. They stop caring about eating. They are driven merely by life’s more X-rated motivation: sex. Sex proceeded by fighting, because furiously battling to mate is a big part of being a salmon.

There’s a lot of biting. Just look at this nastiness. Ignore the soundtrack, for your own benefit:

 Once they manage to spawn, the salmon then promptly die and float belly-up in the water, emitting a stink that draws elated mid-sized wildlife from miles around and displeases local homeowners.

There’s a beautiful analogy in there somewhere, I guess.

salmon fish gate

Since the salmon are going to die anyway, the hatchery collects the fish by means of a very long fish ladder, “bunches” them, sedates them, then kills them and mixes the eggs with the sperm.  The meat is donated to local charities. The eggs are then hatched, and the young fish are raised in large concrete holding tanks, which are walled off to prevent birds from getting into them.

They’re not walled off to prevent children from getting into them, however, as my cousin learned the hard way when she teetered too close to the edge at a fish hatchery in Tennessee back in the 1990s. We still look back fondly on that.

Steelhead trout are caught in the same way but are not killed, as they evolved in a reasonable fashion and don’t actually die the first time they have sex. Good going, steelhead trout.

I know I’m supposed to be impressed by the power of nature and the determination of even a fish to accomplish its life goals against overwhelming odds, but mostly, any deep contemplation of the life cycle of salmon makes everything seem futile and terribly small, and then I need to go lie down with a beverage.

fall american river

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