When Bears Go Fishing in the Rainforest

Not one fish scale is wasted as bruins eat their fill

Vancouver Sun - March 27, 2010

The Salmon Bears
, a new book with text by Nicholas Read and photographs by Ian McAllister, is for children eight and older but has something to offer all ages. It's organized by seasons. Here is an excerpt from "Fall."

Without the salmon, which feed not only bears but also wolves, otters, eagles and more than two hundred other species of rainforest animals, the Great Bear Rainforest would be a very different place. But vital as the salmon are, their annual return is no sure thing. Sometimes disaster strikes and they don't come back.

This happened recently in a place called the Broughton Archipelago, on the southern edge of the Great Bear Rainforest. Millions of pink salmon were expected to turn up at the end of summer to swim upstream, spawn and die as they had for thousands of years. Instead, only a few thousand appeared, and the bears went hungry.

What happened to the missing fish? Many scientists believe sea lice were to blame. Sea lice, tiny parasitic organisms that feed off the flesh of salmon and other fish, are natural in the ocean. Mature salmon are commonly found with a few sea lice on them. But in the concentrated environment of fish farms, sea lice can multiply to the point where there are so many that they become dangerous.

Experts think wild salmon smolts -- the name given to young salmon migrating to sea -- in the Broughton Archipelago were infected by sea lice when their migration took them past fish farms. The young salmon were simply not strong enough to withstand the attacks by sea lice, and they died in huge numbers. That meant fewer young wild salmon were around to grow up. And fewer grown salmon in the ocean meant fewer fish returning to the rivers and streams to spawn and feed the bears . . . .

In a good year, however, millions of chinook, chum, pink, coho and sockeye will fight their way up the many streams of the Great Bear Rainforest to spawn . . . .

When the salmon return to the rivers, bears from all over the forest put their hermit ways aside and gather together to fish. It's like a great big, months-long fishing derby, because to a bear there's nothing better than the season's first taste of salmon; to them it's like chocolate to a child.

As usual, the biggest, strongest bears -- usually the biggest, strongest grizzlies -- get the best fishing spots. Weaker bears and mothers and cubs have to make do with places where the pickings aren't as rich. But in the fall, if everything goes the way nature intends, there should be so many salmon that no one goes hungry.

Bears, like people, have different tastes, especially when it comes to eating salmon. Some like the fatty eggs best. Others like the skin and brains. Some aren't nearly as fussy and will eat the head, the tail and almost everything in between . . .

After a day of bear fishing, the rainforest's riverbanks stink to high heaven. The odour is so strong you might think you'd walked into a fish-packing plant by mistake. But not for long, because in the end not one scale is wasted. There's no such thing as garbage in the rainforest, especially when it comes to salmon.

The Salmon Bears: Giants of the Great Bear Rainforest. Text copyright Ian McAllister and Nicholas Read. Photographs copyright Ian McAllister. Excerpt reprinted with the permission of Orca Book Publishers. Visit www.salmonbears.com for information.

All Photography © Ian McAllister unless otherwise noted.
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