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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Dinosaur barbecue

Pan-fry sockeye
It’s not every day you get to barbecue a dinosaur. The dinosaur I’m talking about is delicious and full of alpha-omega oil that can unclog your arteries and improve your brain function. 
Incredibly, these dinosaurs are now available at bargain prices in supermarkets and black markets all over the North Olympic Peninsula. 
By dinosaur I don’t mean a big lizard that went extinct. No, these are a species that, if history repeats itself, is about to go the way of the dinosaur, the Fraser River sockeye. 
The sockeye is not the largest of the five species of Pacific salmon but they may be the most prized. Their meat is a dark red color. They like rivers with lakes. The sockeye are running up the Strait of Juan de Fuca right now on their way to the Fraser in British Columbia. 
The first historic reference to a sockeye salmon on the Peninsula was in November 1849 when Hudson Bay trapper John Sutherland mentioned many red salmon at Lake Sutherland at the head of Indian Creek, a tributary of the Elwha River. In August 1861 James G. Swan described the Native American sockeye fishery that was about to commence on the Quileute River. Swan mentioned these fish were the same that ran up the Quinault, “in spring and fall, short, thick and very fat.” 
Weirs were built across the river. The fish were speared or dip netted until enough were caught to keep the women busy cleaning and processing for the day. Then the weir was opened to let fish run upstream to spawn.  
Uncounted millions of sockeye used to run up our Quinault, Quileute, Ozette and Elwha rivers. 
With the miracle of fisheries management, these sockeye runs are now depressed, endangered or just plain gone. This could be the fate of the Fraser River sockeye, a run that was estimated to number 160 million fish when the Frazer was “discovered” in 1808. 
This is not the first time the Fraser River sockeye have been threatened. The Canadian Pacific Railroad nearly stopped the upstream migration of sockeye when it blocked the Fraser River with a landslide while blasting a train track through Hell’s Gate back in 1913. That same year 32 million sockeye were caught, out of a run of 50 million fish. This catch has yet to be repeated.  
The sockeye could not have survived this overharvest even if their migration route wasn’t blocked.
In 1937 the U. S. and Canada signed a treaty to rebuild the sockeye run. It wasn’t until 1945 that a device designed by a Port Angeles man, Milo Bell was placed in the canyon to allow fish through Hell’s Gate. This gave the United States a treaty right to Fraser River fish that the Canadians have resented ever since. 
The two countries formed the Pacific Salmon Commission to divide the fish among the myriad groups that have a treaty right to catch them. Alaska catches fish bound for Canada who catch fish bound for Washington who scoop up Fraser River fish when they stray across the boundary. It is a fish war where both sides harbor fleets capable of mutually assured extinction.
Fishing seasons are set by run predictions that are made by guessing the conditions in the Pacific Ocean. It’s a body of water we know less about than the planet Mars. As the sockeye run nears the mouth of the river the real guessing game game begins with the test fishery. That's when the Pacific Salmon Commission opens an area to test fishing, to estimate how many fish might be there and find out how many might be left to catch. This is an inexact science. In the last 10 years, 70% of the  sockeye run forecasts have overestimated the numbers of actual fish. Last year 10.5 million sockeye were predicted to return to the Fraser, Only one million showed up. M
illions of predicted sockeye routinely disappear on their journey in from the ocean or on their way up the river.
The Fraser River contains 44 genetically distinct populations of sockeye. The Adams River is a Fraser River tributary near Kamloops B.C. The Adams River sockeye run is predicted to be strong this year. They are being subjected to a non-selective harvest in a mixed stock fishery. This causes weak stocks that are mixed in with the Adam's River fish, to be harvested at unsustainable levels. 
For example, the current gill-net season for sockeye in the Strait of Juan de Fuca is being conducted near the mouth of the Elwha River. Where hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent taking out 2 hydroeclectric dams in an effort to rebuild the run of the Elwha's legendary 100 pound salmon. While the Elwha River  and the waters around it have been closed to even catch and release sport fishing in an effort to preserve endangered salmon, commercial gillnetting for sockeye is allowed. 
A gill net cannot tell the difference between an endangered Elwha King, an Adam's River sockeye and a Thompson River steelhead. They are all dead by the time you untangle them.   
After a century of bickering and plunder many runs of salmon and steelhead are still being threatened by an obstacle that's nearly as impassable as the Hell's Gate Slide, nylon pollution. There is so much nylon fishing gear in the water, fish can’t make it back up the river. 
Fortunately, today’s fisheries biologists have a new tool designed to deal with endangered runs of salmon. By simply increasing the size of the run predictions, we able to leave the fishing season open, despite Mother Nature’s failure to keep up with the harvest. 
This years’ run of Fraser River Sockeye is predicted to be 11 million fish! That’s half a million more than last year. These run predictions represent paper fish. We have an international treaty right to catch paper fish. 
They are not much on the barbecue so be sure to enjoy a real Fraser River sockeye while you can. Historically, seafood bargains like this never seem to last long. 
While serving the Fraser River sockeye, you might as well pair it with other tasty endangered species like a chicken-fried marbled murrelet, planked rockfish or stellar’s sea lion liver tartar. Sea birds, bottom fish and marine mammals are routinely part of the secret by-catch of the miles of drifting gill nets that keep on fishing and killing, long after they are lost at sea. 
Why not savor the Fraser River sockeye with some rhino horn cutlery while you’re at it. Remember how good it was. 
Someday you can tell your grandkids how you could go to the store and buy a sockeye salmon. 
Those who ignore history are doomed to eat tuna. 

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