Incredible life Story

We are going to take a closer look at a prominent member of the salmon family - the sockeye.

Life for the baby sockeye salmon begins when it hatches from an egg in the winter under the gravel of a cold stream or river in Alaska or British Columbia. The tiny big-eyed hatchling still carries the egg yolk, which is attached to its underside, which will feed it until it can find food for itself. Fry will spend two or three months under the gravel with which their mother covered her eggs. Meanwhile their bodies build fins and bones and organs.

With spring, the young salmon (called "fingerlings") work up through the gravel blanket that sheltered them during winter, and begin life in the river. They feed on microscopic plants and animals (plankton) in the water. Sockeye finger- lings spend a year or two in the fresh- water streams where they hatched. Then they head downstream to the open ocean.

Out in the Pacific, sockeyes are a silvery blue-green color. They average five to seven pounds, though many may weigh up to 15 pounds and reach a length of up to 30 inches. They may wander 2,000 miles from the mouth of their parent river during their two or three years at sea. Then in spring, driven by unerring instinct, they make their way back to their place of birth. In a way not well understood, each salmon finds the river in which it was hatched. They battle their way upstream, fighting swift currents and waterfalls, for hundreds of miles. Some may fight the current for 1000 miles and four months.

The mass migration creates a traffic jam of salmon swimming upstream from the ocean to spawn (lay their eggs). Perhaps as many as 50,000,000 fight their way upstream in two spawning areas alone: the Fraser River system in British Columbia and the Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska.

During this long and arduous journey, the sockeyes lose their blue-green color and become bright red with green heads. The males' jaws grow large and hooked to fight each other at the spawning grounds. Females grow fat with eggs.

Arriving at the spawning grounds, a pair of sockeyes prepare for spawning. The female builds a nest (called "redd") by thrashing the water with her tail at the bottom of the river, and fanning gravel away from pebbles. This may take several days during which the rt1ale stands guard and drives away other males. Finally the female settles on the bottom of the redd and drops her eggs. Then the female moves upstream, again dusting away gravel with her tail, which drifts down to cover the eggs, while making a new redd. She may make several nests in this way and lay about 5000 eggs. By that time their bodies have gradually wasted away. They had gone without food throughout their long and hard journey upstream, living on fat stored up at sea; the nest building and fighting had taken their toll. Now they are quite exhausted; females' tails are worn and shredded. They all die; none ever returns to the sea. They have given their lives to produce a new generation of sockeyes.

Amazing Wonders

No other fish has been studied and observed more than the salmon, yet scientists are still baffled by the wonders of the salmon's life cycle.

Consider, for example, the timing of the sockeye run. So exact is the timing of Alaska's Bristol Bay sockeye run that all the fish, numbering in countless millions, arrive in the estuary within three weeks in late June and early July -despite the fact that individuals approach it from different directions, and from a distance of 1,200 miles or more. They gather with such uncanny accuracy that the peak of the run, occurring about July 5, never varied by more than eight days in the ten years covered by a scientific survey.

No less amazing is the way the salmon unerringly finds its way to its native spawning ground. Consider the problem it faces in getting home. When the time comes to head back for spawning, it can follow no trails in the ocean. Having found the mouth of its home stream, the fish heads upstream, passing tributaries great and small, with enticing coolness and the promise of clean gravel for spawning. Somehow it knows which fork to take to lead it accurately to its destination. Experiments have proved this without a doubt. Young salmon are caught and tagged and placed back in the stream. Years later, after spending the time in the traceless ocean, the tagged salmon were caught again in the same stream, hurrying towards their breeding ground. In another experiment, eggs were taken from one stream to another to hatch. Again the young were caught, tagged and released. Years later they returned to the stream where they were hatched, not to the one in which their parents lived. In yet another experiment, scientists from Alaska fisheries netted salmon on spawning grounds of two different tributaries, forming a fork in the river. They attached red balloons to those of one tributary and yellow balloons to those of the other, then carried them a mile downstream and released them in the waters. It was a fascinating sight to watch them heading back up- stream and making the correct turns- red balloons to the right of the fork, yellow balloons to the left!

Scientists have been able to establish this miracle of migration, but they have not been able to explain what inner sense, or senses, enables a sockeye, or any other species of salmon, to "remember" its native stream, and when, and how, to return to it with unerring accuracy.

But the explanation of this miracle, as of all other mysteries of Nature, is simple. There is a Higher Power that directs all that takes place in Nature, to the minutest detail. We call this Power- Hashgocho Protis, Divine Providence. The Creator has implanted a "hidden sense" in the salmon to enable it to live and reproduce exactly in the way it does. We also see the Hand of the Creator in the migration of birds and beasts, and, indeed, in all wonders of Nature, as so beautifully expressed in our Holy Scriptures:

Ask now the beasts, and they shall teach you;
and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell you.
Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach you,
and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto you:
Who knows not in all these that the hand of G‑d has wrought this?

(Iyov [Job] 12:7-9)