Salmon: the miracle fish
Dawn finds a palisade of anglers knee-deep in surf at the mouth of the South Island’s Rangitata River. When rivers are low, chinook salmon, known locally as quinnat, linger at sea, waiting for higher flows before running upstream to spawn. On foot, by farm bike or in jet-boats, anglers will give chase, eager for the sport of playing a 10–15 kg fighting hen or jack. The introduction of salmon to this country is a story of grim determination, unstinting labour and a sizeable amount of luck. With catches in decline, however, many anglers consider it a small miracle if they land one of these prized fish.
Outside Arundal, north of Geraldine, by the caissons of an old highway bridge, I am staring into the steel-blue waters of the Rangitata River, using cupped hands to shade my eyes against the glare and the dust-blasting nor’westerly wind. The swift current, coursing over bone-white boulders, belies the water’s depth and blurs the riverbed. Yet here, hard against the rounded stones and nosing upstream, is where they should be—if they are here at all. I strain my eyes, as if forcing them into a feat of X-ray vision so they might discern the torpedo-shaped quicksilver bodies quivering in the current. But nothing moves at odds with the river’s flux, and the effort and the wind make my eyes water repeatedly.It is late December, and word has crackled along the Canterbury river telegraph—whispered, hinted and winked at. The rumour has brought us here, raising hopes, sparking excitement. Since long before daybreak we have stood, a line of a dozen or so men and women in waders, hip-deep in the river, swinging fishing rods with the vehemence of tennis players serving at match point, lobbing lures across the current.
The salmon are running again! As if by magic, they have materialised from the ocean and congregated at certain river mouths, as they have done every summer for over a century. From there, propelled by the urgency of hormones towards the inevitability of death, they have surged upstream in waves. They have raced across gravel shallows, rasping their fat silver bellies into open wounds. They have leaped up staircase rapids, then lain doggo in deep pools, resting before making another upstream dash.
Theirs is a one-way journey on a final tank of fuel, a race against time and fatigue. Their stomachs are already defunct and beginning to shrink, so the offerings we cast across their path hold no allure for them. Only if the flashing, twirling piece of metal or vivid-yellow finger-long fly passes in front of their very snouts, might they snap at it, out of pure aggression, not hunger.
Not today, however. Nor yesterday, nor the day before. If the fish have passed this way, they have passed safely. One by one, muttering about fishing being “a waste of time” and threatening to “stay in bed in future,” the anglers reel in their lines and return to their cars, camper vans and caravans. They walk with the stooped gait of the defeated, heading home empty-handed for the umpteenth time. For a while I am alone in the slate-coloured landscape, in wind that could rip the doors off a car, wondering why, against all reason, odds and comfort, my mind is already short-circuiting the rest of the day and racing ahead to tomorrow, the next daybreak, when I will again take my place in the line of anglers, hoping for the miracle of salmon—the king of fish.
My long-time riverside companion, a retired and itinerant Frenchman, Marc Hertault, is the reason for this madness. Monsieur Hertault lives the life of many men’s dreams. Every day for six months he fly-fishes on New Zealand rivers between Taupo and Gore. For the other six months he does the same thing in North America.
A courteous gentleman who wears weathered clothes that look like discards from the Foreign Legion, M. Hertault is one of the happiest people I know. He lives in spartan simplicity and has turned fly-fishing into both a scientific pursuit and a spiritual quest. Above all, he is a walking anthology of stories about the incredible horsepower of les saumons, as he calls them. Many times, as we have lunched on a riverbank or bobbed in a dinghy on Lake Taupo, he has recounted how, having hooked a large salmon, he has had to run—RUN! several hundred metres downriver, holding his hyperbolically bent rod high above his head, hotfooting it over boulders and driftwood. Not an easy feat for a septuagenarian wearing chest waders. His tales come mainly from Quebec, British Columbia and Alaska. “Ah, les saumons du Canada! ” he exclaims, theatrically sucking in a mouthful of air. “Strong! Mean! Unstoppable!”
Then he launches into a passionate speech about the greatest, noblest game fish on earth. I rarely get a word in, and when I do he says dismissively, “You have not yet lived, jeune homme. Les saumons du Canada . . . ” And on it goes. But I have fashioned a ploy to get my own back. You see, for all his expertise, M. Hertault is unaware that there are salmon in New Zealand.
Had the European settlers of New Zealand, who saw the country as an ecological tabula rasa, had their way, salmon would be as plentiful as sheep. As it turned out, the very fact salmon are here at all is a minor miracle.
All salmon are northern-hemisphere fish, originating from either the Pacific or Atlantic coasts. Pacific salmon are numerous, varied and known by a multitude of names, although ichthyologists distinguish only five main species: chinook (also known as king salmon, tyee, spring salmon or quinnat), coho, chum, sockeye and pink, or humpback, salmon. There are also a few lesser-known species, such as the Japanese cherry salmon and the Siberian taimen, a solitary and long-lived salmonid and one of the largest freshwater fish on earth (the heaviest verified specimen weighed 109 kg).
A breed apart is the Atlantic salmon, its original native range extending from the east coast of North America to Western Europe. Unlike Pacific salmon, Atlantic salmon do not always die after spawning and may breed several times during their lives. The Romans treasured this fish, and, having watched it swim by seemingly impassable river obstacles—salmon can propel themselves up three-metre-high waterfalls—they called it salmo, the leaper. In the British Isles the species attained an almost aristocratic status, and by the decree of Magna Carta, in 1215, its habitat was to be protected and its passage unobstructed for all time. To colonists, Salmo salar, the Atlantic salmon, was the fish of choice for introduction to New Zealand.
According to Bob McDowall, New Zealand’s preeminent freshwater ichthyologist–historian, the importation of Atlantic salmon to New Zealand was “the most enduring and intensive effort anywhere in the world to introduce an exotic species into a new country.” Between 1864 and 1910, there were 24 shipments of Atlantic salmon, totalling five million ova (see “The Lure of Trout,” New Zealand Geographic, Issue 46).
At first, the smolts—young salmon—were poured haphazardly into any river which took the colonists’ fancy, whereupon they promptly disappeared, never to be seen again. A more methodical approach was deemed necessary, and the man chosen to spearhead the enterprise was Lake Falconer Ayson, a Dunedin Scot whose self-taught expertise in raising hatchery trout had landed him the position of Chief Inspector of Fisheries in 1899.
With both brown and rainbow trout firmly established in New Zealand, Ayson set out to Europe and North America to research the Atlantic salmon and its habitat and to source the best breeding stock. He returned home with a firm idea that the best place for the fish would be the Waiau River, in Southland, as its temperature, flow and watershed most closely matched the salmon’s northern-hemisphere habitat.
Ayson promptly set about building a hatchery on the Upukerora River, an ideal spawning ground which connects with the Waiau via lake Te Anau. Thus what McDowall calls “the salmonisation of the Antipodes”—asaga that was to last for over a century—kicked into high gear, as year after year the redoubtable Ayson released millions of fry into the waterways.
But something was not quite right. The fish either vanished or became voluntarily land-locked. Only a moderate run (1000–2000 fish in 1930) established itself in the Upukerora, and since these salmon did not go out to sea, and so failed to take advantage of the rich food resources there, they remained relatively small—mere miniatures of their progenitors. Perhaps the water wasn’t cold enough in the Waiau, McDowall speculates, or maybe the fishes’ navigational sense, tuned to northern-hemisphere magnetic coordinates, failed down under. Whatever the reason, the Atlantic salmon failed to establish a seagoing—or at least returning—population.
A large Atlantic salmon was, however, caught in fishing nets off the coast of Oamaru in 1897—proof that the fish could indeed survive in New Zealand waters. The incident helped keep the salmon dream alive, and over the following century anglers persisted in their attempts to introduce the fish. In 1960, a shipment of ova from Scotland was released into the Waiau, and the following year brood stock from the Baltic was tried. As recently as 1983 there was a proposal to release Atlantic salmon into the Buller River, but the release never eventuated. Today, a remnant stock of Atlantic salmon is confined to the Lake Te Anau catchment, where, like the dream of the unstoppable leaper flashing up the South Island’s picture-perfect rivers, the fish is considered close to extinction.
Lake ayson’s salmon interests were not restricted to the Atlantic species. At the same time as he was introducing Salmo fry to the Upukerora, he was hatching a parallel project on the Hakataramea River, a tributary of the Waitaki. The idea was the same: a single-point, large-scale and long-term release, but of another salmonid species. Here he would try chi‑nook, Oncorhynchus tschawytscha, the largest of all Pacific salmon, capable of tipping the scales at 50 kg.
Ayson planned his campaign meticulously. He selected a relatively coastal strain of chinook from California’s Sacramento River—one that he hoped would not get lost at sea—and he chose the Waitaki River in the belief that the Southland Current, sweeping up the South Island’s east coast, would disperse the fish northwards into other big rivers.
The venture was an immediate success. Between 1901 and 1907, Ayson made five importations and releases of fry, fingerlings and juveniles, and by 1907 the chinooks (which would become known here as quinnat, another native American name for salmon) were already coming back to spawn. Ayson was delighted. Some of the fish weighed up to 11 kg. He stripped them of ova to produce yet more fish, and so reared the first generation of truly New Zealand salmon.
By 1911–12, quinnat had colonised the Waitaki River system and were spawning as far inland as the Ohau, Pukaki and Tekapo Rivers. Bolstered by additional releases, they had also spread out along the coast, both north and south, and were soon fully established in all available habitats. Before a series of hydro dams on the Clutha River blocked their passage, quinnat would swim up the entire length of the river, traverse Lake Wanaka, proceed up the Makarora and spawn in rivers such as the Wilkin and Young, in the heart of the Southern Alps. With the possible exception of Chile, where coho and chinook—escapees from sea-cage farms—may have established self-sustaining runs, New Zealand is the only country in the world where salmon have successfully acclimatised outside their natural range.
Although there are now small salmon runs along the West Coast—notably into Lake Mapourika—and stray fish have been caught as far north as Taranaki, it is Canterbury, with its glacier-fed rivers cutting wide braided courses across the agricultural checkerboard of the Canterbury Plains, which remains the quinnat centre of New Zealand.
As I drive along the coastal highway, it is apparent just how much a Canterbury tradition salmon fishing has become. The mouths of the Rakaia and the Rangitata have spawned suburbs of salmon cribs, and any time during the fishing season, especially at daybreak, a forest of swaying rods can be seen where river meets surf. Fish and Game New Zealand, the administrative guardian of the country’s freshwater fisheries, claims that salmon fishing is by far the most popular form of angling in the South Island. During the record 1994–95 season, Canterbury’s salmon rivers saw approximately 207,000 angler days (imagine the combined population of Nelson and Wellington going out for a day’s fishing)—two-and-a-half times as many as the world-renowned Taupo region. Moreover, the season is much shorter in Canterbury than in Taupo, traditionally from December to late March.
Unlike trout fishing, the practice of which has evolved into part art form, part religion, catching a quinnat is a relatively uncomplicated pursuit involving rudimentary gear, basic skills and a fair dose of good fortune. But what it lacks in angling finesse, salmon fishing makes up for in the size and taste of the prize. A good fish can weigh 10–15 kg, which, at shop prices, converts into $200–300-worth of choice eating.
“Each cast is a lucky dip,” admits Gordon, an angler I meet near the Waimakariri mouth, as he stows his rod and changes his clothes, ready to go off to work. No fish today, he says, but when the salmon are running it’s worth pulling a sickie.
On the Waimakariri I see more women fishing than I have ever encountered on trout rivers. There are regular pull-in areas along the riverbanks, time-worn like West Coast whitebaiting possies, each with a car—doors open, radio crooning—sometimes with the family Lab tied to the tow bar, and a cardboard box with sandwiches and Thermos showing in the boot. Only metres away, poised like herons, Mr and Mrs Angler are casting their lures with a motion that resembles an upside-down golf swing. Plonk! The metal hits the water. There is a pause, then the slow twirling of a reel. Another cast. Plonk! Time passes pleasantly as the sun lifts out of the ocean. I see many such snapshots of family riverside idylls. All that is missing is the fish.
Maybe it’s just my luck, but everywhere I go there are the same long faces, bitten lips and shaking heads, the same disbelief. What of the river telegraph? Where are the salmon? As fruitless days slip by, it becomes increasingly clear that the fish haven’t shown up, or else they have done so in such small numbers as to make the always chancy odds almost negligible.
Later, I will read a report in a fishing magazine about one of the year’s more successful anglers, who caught just 11 salmon. His statistics sum it up: he calculates he averaged 65 hours of fishing time per salmon—roughly eighteen 40-hour weeks in total; more or less a full-time occupation over the season.
The only person I encounter who seems to be catching fish is Ross Millichamp. Fewer than normal, to be sure, he says, but that’s no reason to despair. For the past dozen years Millichamp has been living two lives. In one he is a salmon-fishing fanatic, author of a guidebook he called Salmon Fever because chasing salmon, he says, is like being caught up in a gold rush. In the other he is regional manager of Fish and Game North Canterbury, dealing primarily with, well, salmon and salmon anglers.
I meet him at dawn in a central Christchurch suburb as he readies his jet-boat for an escapade on the Rakaia River. Soon we are driving south. The amber-lit streets are still empty, although the traffic thickens as we approach the launching ramp. During the journey, I ask him the all-important question: what has happened to the salmon?
He seems unmoved by what I perceive as a national calamity. “You need to understand that salmon runs go through natural rise-and-fall cycles, with big variations from one year to the next,” he says. Fisheries scientists estimate that, in an average year, some 37,000 New Zealand quinnat return to the South Island’s rivers to spawn. Around 10,000 enter the Rakaia, several thousand more head for each of the other big rivers—the Waimakariri (6000), the Rangitata (8000) and the Waitaki (8000)—and the remaining 5000 home in on smaller rivers such as the Hurunui and Opihi.
In any given year the run may fluctuate between 10,000 and 75,000 fish, of which anglers catch around 35–40 per cent. In the Rakaia, the country’s most studied salmon river, runs have varied from 1500 to 22,000 fish.
Despite the variations, there are definite longterm trends. “It’s a bit like the stock exchange. You get bull and bear markets,” Ross says. In the mid-1990s, the fishery was booming, and both the size and the number of salmon were the best anyone could remember. The fishing peaked during the 1995–96 season and has been declining ever since. There was a similar boom-and-bust cycle in the 1980s. “We seem to be at the statistical rock bottom of a cycle,” he says. “It may be just a case of riding out the bear and waiting for the bull to charge in again.”
Right now, though, we are doing a little charging of our own: a white-knuckle ride to the first salmon pool. The current of the Rakaia is fierce, and to keep the boat on the plane Ross must go fast, so the river unrolls ahead of us like a computer game, the many braids an endless multiple-choice test requiring instantaneous decisions. We slalom around entire trees brought down by floods, power up rapids and grate across gravel shallows. Sometimes, Ross tells me later, a braid can simply run out in front of you, resulting in a spectacular high-speed beaching. This usually happens early in the season, he says, when the reflexes are still rusty from winter disuse.
“Jet-boats were made for this,” he grins, shouting over the roar of the engine as we career out of a cul-de-sac. “I wonder if Bill Hamilton would have invented the jet-boat if not for salmon fishing.” It’s an interesting thought. The self-taught farmer–engineer who, among other things, helped design and build the country’s first ski tow, was born near Fairlie, in the heart of salmon country. His jet engines would revolutionise the world of boating. But before they blazed a wake up the Colorado, the Zaire, the Ganges and the Amazon, he tested them on the Waitaki, starting in 1953. The prototype boat was called Quinnat, followed be a larger, faster successor named Chinook.
The naming may have been coincidental, but it is biologically accurate: New Zealand quinnat never quite reach the size, or the horsepower, of the American chinook. The reason is that chinook usually spawn when they are between three and seven years old, while New Zealand quinnat reproduce at two to four, occasionally five.
The earlier age at which quinnat reach sexual maturity here probably reflects their comparatively rapid growth at sea, says Christchurch fisheries scientist Martin Unwin. Our waters are warmer than their counterparts in California or Oregon, he explains. “The faster a salmon grows, the younger it is at maturity. Because New Zealand salmon grow quickly, they don’t have time to get very big. By contrast, in some Alaskan populations the mean age at maturity is eight.”
Ross Millichamp thinks differences in size between New Zealand and North American rivers may also be a factor in the variable age of maturation. In the Yukon, for example, the fish must travel some 3000 km to reach the sea, while in the Rakaia the distance is only 100 km. Alternatively, a salmon’s life may simply be much tougher in New Zealand.
“American salmon rivers are long, but they also have large, sheltered estuaries, and so the young fish can take their time travelling downstream,” he says. “Our rivers are short and fast, and they lack estuaries where the young salmon can ease into the saltwater life. New Zealand salmon are thrown into the deep end.”
As we weave our way upstream, like hounds following a scent, Ross cranes his neck to locate the likeliest places for salmon to rest—deep eddies or pools just downstream of major obstacles. His approach to fishing is businesslike. He drives the nose of the boat into the gravel and holds it there with the engine revving against the current while I leap out and dig the anchor into the bank. Plonk! Plonk!Plonk! He tests the water with a few rapid casts, and then we’re off again, looking for another pool. “The more water you cover, the better your chances,” he says. “If the fish are there, you usually get one within a few casts.”
Hours pass, measured out in the repetitive launching and anchoring of the boat and the sound of lures slapping the water. Of salmon there is no sign—not a splash, not a bite, nothing. The mountains grow taller as we travel further and further inland, but the turquoise water seems as lifeless as melted ice cubes. My enthusiasm sags, though for Ross every cast seems as important as the decisive ball of a Lotto draw. What will it be: all or nothing?
“I’ve got one!” he shouts. Sure enough, his reel is spinning like an electric whisk, his rod bent into a bow, pointing towards a salmon that is U-boating downstream.
A long tug-of-war ensues, but after the initial adrenalin rush this part is purely mechanical. With his heavy-duty tackle, Millichamp hauls the fish out of the river and dispatches it, au Fred Flintstone, with a hefty rock.
The salmon is in superb condition, fat and the colour of stainless steel: a prime candidate for the backyard smoker. As I watch Ross wrap it in a jute sack, I recall an old salmon hand telling me by the Rangitata that the vast majority of fish are caught by only a handful of experts, while the other few thousand anglers simply make up the licence-sale statistics and occasionally get lucky. Clearly, Ross is at the top of the first group and I am at the bottom of the second. But there must be a way of crossing from one to the other, I reason. Through the jute, the salmon’s body feels firm and ice-cold, and I sense the fever building again.
If a salmon fashion, you follow a river such as the Rakaia towards its source, along its multiplicity of interwoven braids and through its forcefully hewn gorge, you will notice that the water becomes progressively shallower and more transparent, until, finally, it splits into tendrils: spring-fed creeks as clear as kirschand no wider than a single-lane country road, purling and meandering through open tussock valleys. Each of these feeder streams has a bed of finest gravel, each its unique chemical signature which the salmon recognise as the taste of home.
Scientists think it must be primarily the water’s taste that guides salmon back to their birthplace. How else to explain this truly miraculous feat? Imagine driving from Wellington to a specific small street in suburban Auckland, well away from the motorway system and which you know only from vague childhood memories. You are travelling without a map, and there are no road signs. What are your chances of success? By smell you might recognise that you were passing sulphurous Rotorua or the Kinleith paper mill at Tokoroa. Perhaps, if the windows are down, you might smell the sea as you approach Auckland. But is it the east coast, or have you taken the Manukau turn-off by mistake? Finally, and surely by a miracle, you arrive, and notice that many others have done so, too. It feels like a kindergarten reunion. There will be one last party, and then the end of it all.
There is perhaps no event in the natural world which inspires more rumination on life’s ebb and flow than the salmon’s journey from river to sea and back again. Baby salmon, known as alevins, hatch from eggs buried in the gravel by parents whose bodies have long since decomposed or been washed downstream. A yolk sack feeds them for the first two months of their lives, at which point they wriggle out of the gravel towards the light and into flowing water. By now they are 30–35 mm long and known as fry.
Feeding voraciously on insects, they continue to grow, being called fingerlings or parrs at 5–8 cm and smolts at 10–15 cm, and over several months make their way downstream. They pause near the river mouth until their bodies adjust to salt water, then enter the deep blue and vanish. What they do and where they go is anyone’s guess. Except for some sketchy data from the sea-fishery bycatch, science still knows little about the salmon’s life at sea in New Zealand waters.
What is known, however, is that the fish grow rapidly. A young salmon reaches around 2 kg after its first year at sea and 7 kg after its second. Fish that stay at sea for another year grow to around 12 kg. The predator toll is also known to be extremely high. Of some 5000 eggs laid in each spawning place, or redd, perhaps only three or four salmon will survive to return to their birth stream.
When the survivors reappear at the entrance to their river, they are in their prime and full of élan vital, driven by the “must spawn” imperative. On their way upstream they are resolute and relentless. If they encounter an obstruction, they either surmount it or batter themselves to death against it.
This extraordinary drive is surely one of the reasons anglers become so deeply hooked on salmon fishing. It is as if the salmon’s determination is transferred up the line when anglers seek to stop the unstoppable. M. Hertault’s travels are based on the fishing calendar, and there are thousands of like-minded devotees.
Those few fish which successfully evade anglers and other obstacles reach their birthplace to face one last act of natural selection: competition for a mate. The females choose sites for their redds and, lying on their sides, dig hollows in the streambeds with sinuous, explosive movements of their tails, while the males fight for a chance and a place to reproduce.
By now the males have lost much of the flesh around their mouths and have developed a ferocious-looking hooked jaw known as a kype. The bodies of both males and females have changed in colour from silver to platinum-black and are literally falling apart. Where the skin has been damaged in fights or abraded by gravel, chunks of flesh are often missing. Tails and fins are ragged and worn, and snouts often dislocated.
After spawning, the females bury the fertilised eggs with layers of gravel, and then keep guard until, having run out of energy, they can no longer hold their own against the current and are washed downstream and stranded on gravel bars.
Their mission accomplished, all the adult fish die. Not one survives the ordeal. But as the final spark of life trickles out of them, under the gravel of the rivers’ tendril streams the miracle of new life is already stirring.
Considering the effort that salmon invest in the renewing of their kind, it is little wonder that river-keepers have tried to lend a helping hand, especially now that hydro developments on the Waitaki and Clutha Rivers have significantly re‑duced the availability of spawning habitat. The imprint of this assistance is still visible in the headwaters of the Rakaia. There, one autumn morning, I walk with Brady Hartstone, a man whose entire life now revolves around salmon.
Along Double Hill Stream, a critical spawning water for the Rakaia, he shows me the remains of early salmon-enhancement projects. The structures remind me of ancient aqueducts: timber weirs and rusting wheels that once controlled water levels, pools and canals. The main stream itself is a staircase of evenly spaced cascades and pools—a staircase made with shovels and hoes, the cascades mini-dams of carefully arranged stones, and the gravel raked as smooth as a driveway to make it all the more appealing to spawning salmon. But the waterworks have fallen into sad disrepair, an outcome, Brady tells me, which pretty much symbolises the state of salmon affairs. Salmon have many fishers but few friends.
What makes the situation even more problematic is the fact that in Canterbury water is an increasingly precious commodity, and all major salmon rivers are targeted for either hydro developments or irrigation schemes. If a Meridian Energy proposal to construct a 62 km-long canal and six new power stations next to the Waitaki goes ahead, up to two-thirds of the river’s flow will be siphoned off. An irrigation proposal for the Rangitata would have halved the river’s flow, but in November 2002, after a heated 10-month debate, a Water Conservation Order (the riverine equivalent of a national park) was recommended for the Rangitata, banning dams and capping water abstraction. The future of other salmon rivers remains uncertain.
Though a professional salmon man, Brady Hartstone is not an angler. He lives in a simple worker’s cottage downstream of the Double Hill works, at the confluence of that stream and another, the Glenariffe. Here, a handful of buildings and a cluster of deep concrete ponds, through which part of the stream has been diverted, constitute a piece of history—a one-time centre of salmon research in New Zealand. First it was a Marine Department monitoring station, then a research facility and hatchery which later belonged to the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. In 1999, when research funding dried up, it was sold to Brady’s father, Roydon, and his partner, Tony Houston, to become a private farm for organically grown salmon.
Glenariffe is also the site of the country’s longest-running fish trap, a contrivance made of two fencelike barriers placed across the stream and forming a pool where all passing fish are briefly impounded to be counted, measured and then released upstream. The trap, now voluntarily staffed by the younger Hartstone and Houston duo, is the most reliable means of ascertaining just how many salmon there are in the river, what condition they are in and how big they are. It is from here that depressing tidings have been trickling downstream and across salmon country.
“The 1999–2000 season was dismal,” Tony tells me. “Salmon were returning from the sea in appalling physical condition—same size as usual but only half the weight. The following summer was even worse. Only about a third of the previous year’s numbers came to spawn.” Just 80 fish had shown up at Glenariffe by May 2001, of which only 34 were females, he says. By comparison, in past years as many as 1200 females have been caught at the trap. The memorable 1985–86 season saw 7288 salmon pass through.
Earlier that day I walked with Tony and the Hart-stones, father and son, across the wide Rakaia valley to another piece of prime spawning real estate, a network of streams known as the Hydra Waters. We forded many braided channels, linking arms against the current. The glacier-chilled water made our legs and feet ache with cold. We walked several kilometres, looking for salmon, but instead found empty pools of undisturbed gravel and crystal-clear water.
“Right now, there ought to be a salmon frenzy in here,” Tony told me. “This is the peak of their spawning season, and we should be seeing hundreds of fish and carcasses.” We would, after a lot more walking, see perhaps two dozen fish, their forked tails finning hard against the current. Returning to the farm, I walked mechanically, the numbness in my feet spreading up to my mind as well. Was I a few years too late for my rendezvous with salmon? Was I now only a witness to the end of an era?
“No two ways about it,” Tony told me back at the farm. “The natural runs are so low now that if we want to have worthwhile numbers of salmon in our rivers, we have to start putting them in there again.” Even in the salmon’s North American home waters, he said, the wild runs are routinely topped up with hatchery releases. “Otherwise it’s like cutting down trees and not replanting them,” he said. “Sooner or later you’re going to run out.”
To be sure, our salmon fishery has already been topped up once, and on an unprecedented scale. It was an experiment designed to turn New Zealand into a salmon-industry potentate, and though its fall-out is difficult to gauge, it certainly changed both the fishery and people’s perceptions of it. The idea was elegant in its simplicity. Given that salmon return almost infallibly to the very streams where they were born, all that was necessary—in theory, at least—was to hatch large quantities of fry and release them into a suitable river. They would go out to sea, feed and grow without any supervision or care, then return as fat, free-range fish ready for harvest.
It was called ocean ranching, and it began in 1976. To start with, the ranchers faced stiff opposition from anglers, but the protesters were promptly appeased when they were guaranteed free angling access to the returning fish. In essence, the ranchers were paying the anglers a river toll—in the form of all the fish the anglers could legally catch.
Early returns were dismal—only 15 fish from the first liberation of nearly a million fry—but the ranchers soon discovered that while releasing 4–6-monthold fish resulted in survival rates of well under one per cent, if they held the fish for longer, say up to a year, the returns could go up to five, even seven, per cent. (Two per cent was considered the minimum for commercial viability.)
Over the following years, rivers were stacked with salmon fry. At the peak of the ranching venture, in the mid-1980s, more than six million young salmon were released every year at over 20 different locations. Over eight million were liberated at Glenariffe in a six-year period, but the most ambitious of all the hatchand-release operations was Tentburn, established in 1984 near the Rakaia River, which could rear that many fry in a year.
Between 1984 and 1990, Tentburn released 25 million fish into the Rakaia, but, despite initial optimism, ocean-ranching returns turned out to be consistently poor, with a mean survival rate of 0.2–0.6 per cent. One by one the salmon businesses were forced to close shop, and by 1991 all large-scale releases had been abandoned.
Eventually, the ranchers realised that, with high rearing costs and unforeseen risks in the sea and rivers, it made better sense never to let the fish go. Thus salmon cage-farming came into being, notably in Stewart Island’s Big Glory Bay, in the Marlborough Sounds and in the Mackenzie Country hydro canals. In modern cage-farming (see sidebar), fish are kept for two or three years and harvested when they weigh between two and four kilograms.
Most of the world’s salmon aquaculture uses Atlantic salmon and coho, total global production in 2002 being over a million tonnes, but New Zealand’s production of 8200 tonnes accounts for around half of all farmed chi-nook. Now you can eat salmon any time you want. But catching your own is a different matter altogether
A year has passed since I began to cast about for salmon. M. Hertault has been and gone again, and I’ve kept my pursuit a secret from him, all the while holding a finger on the fishery’s feeble pulse, and perking up when suddenly it startedto quicken. The poor catches—two consecutive worst seasons on record—and a real possibility of a population collapse, have caused a big stir in fishing circles. How could we have the Rakaia without salmon, anglers asked? It would be like Mt Cook with no snow, or Rotorua without steam. This realisation has jump-started rescue operations. It has seen anglers putting down their rods and picking up shovels and hoes. It has meant the return of the river-keepers.
In Christchurch, the Salmon Action Group has been formed—a multidisciplinary rescue lobby, comprising fishery managers, scientists, members of fishing and boating clubs and tackle-shop owners, with the aim of discovering the cause of the decline and finding remedies and the resources to finance them.
Fifty men and women have helped rebuild an old hatchery on Montrose Station, near Rakaia, and are now running it, rearing some 60,000 salmon under the guidance of Fish and Game New Zealand and with the blessing of station owners Ad and Marjo Bruin. Glenariffe salmon farm has also made its ponds available for similar ventures, offering to raise and release 400,000 baby salmon a year.
All these initiatives, however, are seen as no more than an emergency measure to keep the fishery alive, and to ensure there is still a critical mass of salmon in the rivers, allowing the population a chance to recover. With expected returns of only one in a hundred, the river-keepers don’t expect a salmon bonanza any time soon. It is not a matter of scale, either, for more releases do not necessarily add up to more returning fish. Paradoxically, the massive hatchery releases of the ocean-ranching days are often cited as a major cause of the current decline.
“To stock or not to stock is always a tricky question,” Martin Unwin tells me. In the short term it seems a great idea: the more fish you put in, the more come back up the rivers. But then the wild stock becomes “diluted” with hatchery stock, and the fish generally become smaller. The fishery loses its resilience and comes to depend on continual restocking. A few years after you stop hatchery releases you have a crisis—which is exactly what happened with ocean ranching, Martin says. An entire generation of anglers grew up believing that mega-releases—and mega-catches—were the norm. It bears remembering, he says, that of the record 7288 fish recorded spawning in Glenariffe Stream in 1985, over 4200 were of hatchery origin.
Although he sports a Papa Hemingway beard, Martin is not an angler, and so doesn’t display the symptoms of salmon fever. His lifelong fascination with salmon lies not in the fish’s towing horsepower when hooked but in its ability to adapt and survive so far from its home waters. Over the past 25 years he has tracked and recorded its fate, and his observations have resulted in some eye-opening revelations.
“The average survival rate for smolt is less than one per cent, and anglers catch about a third of the returning fish, so for every salmon caught you have to release 300 smolt,” he tells me. “To significantly improve the number of returning salmon you’d have to annually release 300,000 to 500,000 smolt, and they cost about a dollar each to rear. This means each fish caught costs between $300 and $500.” The question is, are New Zealanders prepared to pay so much for the thrill of catching a salmon?Fortunately, it’s not all about economics, and other data collected by Martin suggest, statistically at least, that there are better things to come.
“Our fishery is naturally viable,” he says. “It has its ups and downs, but salmon have shown that they are at home here. Within a short time of their introduction, they colonised all available waters and established a healthy and self-sustaining population. Barring a calamity, I don’t think that they will become extinct. We’ve been through a particularly deep salmon recession, but it looks like we’ve bottomed out. Give the fish some time and they’ll start coming back.”
And come back they have. Just as the faces were getting longer, the lips more chewed, early in the summer of 2003 salmon began entering the rivers in greater numbers. Ross Millichamp’s bull, if not quite charging, was perhaps power-walking to warm up its stiffened limbs.
Ross himself remained poker-faced about the upturn. “We tend to forget that salmon are most of all an ocean creature, and spend only a fraction of their lives in rivers,” he told me. “Rivers, of course, are a critical part of the cycle, but just what sort of salmon run we’re going to have is determined by the ocean, and is thus largely outside our knowledge and control.”
One of the key factors, Ross says, is the variation in sea-surface temperatures associated with the Southern Oscillation, or the El Niño/La Niña cycle. “Recent research suggests that if young salmon hit the sea when water temperatures are below average, then a good run is likely—perhaps because the cool water moving up the east coast brings with it an abundance of krill, or maybe because it allows the salmon to better metabolise their food.”
Whatever the reason, salmon appear to survive and grow better in cooler water, closer in temperature to their native waters. And because the local salmon’s life span is only three or four years, the population suffers the full brunt of temperature variations. They do not live long enough to wait it out, so they come back small and skinny, or they don’t come back at all.
Maybe our coastal waters can support only so many salmon, Ross adds—which could explain why ocean ranching was a failure. Despite the fact that there were millions of additional smolts entering the sea, the overall size of the population may have remained largely unchanged. If that is so, and given the fact that the number of fish spawning in a particular season has little effect on the size of future runs (spawning being a case of massive overproduction to ensure sufficient offspring survive), it may well be that our salmon population is robust and self-sustaining.“They like it here,” Ross says, “and I’m not surprised. Who wouldn’t want to come back to a river like the Rakaia?”
I already had, times, but still without much success. I grilled various fishing guides for tips. One suggested that to maximise my chances I needed to find a good pool and to camp nearby, so that every day I would be there first. It was no use fishing second-handwater, he said. I chose a place on the upper Rakaia where I had seen locals fishing, and dug in for a siege. It was a lovely spot to camp, in the foothills of the Southern Alps, with squadrons of Canada geese winging their way overhead like V-shaped ticks of approval in the sky.
I rose before dawn, leaving a tent stiffened by autumn frost, wriggled into my waders and crossed the river braids towards the main stream. I had the place to myself. I tied on a gaudy yellow fly and began to cast.
It was as uneventful as ever, the lifeless opaque water rushing by, slowly eroding enthusiasm and hope. My line was extremely heavy, and casting resembled throwing a grenade, but the fly must have reached the bottom because it snagged frequently among the rocks. I pulled the line up again and again to free the fly, until suddenly something pulled back. It was a dull, annoyed sort of tug, followed by a momentary pause—just long enough, I later thought, for the adrenal glands of salmon and angler to fire simultaneously. In an instant, my reel burst into a whirr—the sound of a dentist’s high-speed drill—as the line spooled out downstream. Salmon! It must be a salmon! Nothing else in the river could pull so hard.
“I have lived!” wrote Rudyard Kipling after landing a chinook on an Oregon river. “The American continent may now sink under the sea, for I have taken the best that it yields, and the best was neither dollars, love, nor real estate.
”Now I have lived, too, I thought. Monsieur Hertault will hear about this, more than once. “Ah, les saumons de Nouvelle-Zélande,” I will say to him. “Beasts! Monsters! Stronger than jet-boats!”