Salmon give their lives to create forests and the land we live on. Most people know that salmon return to streams where they were born in order to spawn, but we don't often think about what happens afterwards. They also die there, in those streams. After they hatch, they leave the eddies and rock beds they came from, go out to sea for years, grow and become strong there. We don't know how they know it's time to return, or how they know how to come back, or where to come back to. What we do know is that, when it's time, they stop eating. Their bodies transform, and all of their stored muscle and fat goes into producing the structures in their bodies that they need to reproduce. Their entire lives are spent in preparation for one moment.

After a salmon spawns, its life is over. By the time they get far enough upstream that they have reached their spawning ground, they are skinny and weak. Their fins are ragged. In some species, the males have grown beaks and changed color; the females barely have internal organs left, only room for eggs. Their bodies are no longer meant to maintain them. They couldn't survive after this, even if they wanted to. Their bodies wash up on the banks of streams by the hundreds, or sink to the bottom; they will feed countless different creatures. The forests in our part of the world are literally made from them. They comprise huge parts of Indigenous cultures here. The landscape and the environment are shaped by their presence.

I have been involved in an effort to restore a particular creek here, one that runs through the city and has been deeply affected by the people living around it. One thing that this group has been working towards is the re-introduction of salmon. It used to be full of them; its name in Lək̓ʷəŋən is Thaywun, which means "Coho Salmon Stream". It has not had a salmon run for decades.

At the end of 2021, we learned that we had shown - through months of stream flow, water quality, and temperature measurements - that the stream was a viable place for salmon eggs to hatch, and so we would be given Chinook eggs to place in it. As part of that, and in order to build a relationship with the hatchery that was providing the eggs, we were invited to harvest eggs from salmon ourselves.

I didn't know what to expect when I went to the hatchery, but I certainly hadn't expected an emotionally moving experience. I had been making jokes involving squeezing fish like sponges in order to get eggs from them. The volunteers at the hatchery - and it is all volunteer run - are gentle, respectful, pragmatic; they do not want the fish to feel undue discomfort. For this reason, and because the salmon are already at the end of their life when they are ready to spawn, eggs and sperm are not harvested from live fish. The salmon at the hatchery are ones who had made the journey upstream to it, and been captured there, and put in holding tanks, safe from eagles and bears and whatever else might befall them. In the wild, far fewer than half of all salmon eggs get fertilized, but in a controlled environment, it is possible to achieve a fertilization rate over 90%. That is why the hatchery operates this way. Nothing is wasted, no animals panic.

Those of us who came to see the hatchery were given a little tour, shown what the process would be like, and then given gloves. When the time came, the lead volunteers hauled the fish out one by one, checking them to see if they were ready. Those who needed more time were put in another tank to wait. The ones who were ready to spawn were handed off to be quickly taken to the killing table; minimal time out of the water was key.

They were then killed with a few blows to the head, with a pneumatic hammer, wielded with a practiced hand.

I was standing around and watching this process, when I saw someone holding out a jack salmon - a small male, who looks like a juvenile, but who has nonetheless come upstream to spawn. He was ready, and out of the water, gasping, and I was the closest pair of hands who could help. I took him by the tail, traveled the few steps to the killing table, and placed him gently, but quickly. I felt his body stiffen as his life ended, before I could think about it. I wished I could have been some comfort to him, but both I and the situation are much too alien to a fish to be able to offer that. The society that I am a part of has created the circumstances that makes this all necessary, and there is no explaining that to these beings. That little jack's children will live on somewhere, and that will have to be enough.

I hadn't realized that someone was taking a picture of that moment, until it appeared on the front page of a local newspaper.

I feel gratitude for the salmon, but I felt sorry for all of the salmon at the hatchery; they would never really experience their big moment, the act that they swam thousands of miles and transformed their bodies to partipate in, and what is life, but a series of experiences? Did they know what they were missing? Were they anticipating something that could never arrive?

A couple months later, the eggs were ready to be placed in the stream, and it was done with much celebration, and a little fanfare. These eggs are Chinook salmon eggs, the most hardy of the potential species, and the most resilient to a harsh summer or a bad winter. But if Chinook can live there, maybe Coho can, too. One of the other volunteers was lucky enough to spot the newly hatched fry some weeks later on their way out to sea, and take a video. It was the subject of great hope and excitement, but we won't know if we were really succesful there for another two years at least. The only way to know is if the salmon who hatch there are able to return and live and die as they were meant to do. We'll try again next year, and hope that we can help Thaywun's name make sense again someday.