By Graham Richard —
In anticipation of this year’s returning taaxid sockeye, Fisheries staff headed down Bobblehead Road to K’aasda Gandlaay Copper River Tuesday, April 11.
The team was there to install a fence that helps fisheries staff count returning taaxid to monitor the health of the population. The annual return of taaxid to Haida Gwaii brings such excitement that the month of May is named Taaxid Kung, or Sockeye Moon. Consequently, Haida have gone to great lengths to manage the river’s population for generations.
The late morning sun fringed the silhouettes of large beach boulders in gold as the team drove along the northern shore of K’aasda GawGa Copper Bay. Many of the boulders have been used as markers throughout history, and have their own names. Two in particular are credited with teaching our ancestors how to fish in the river. Family roots in K’aasda Gandlaay span centuries, and names taken from the area are still cherished and revered. At one time the area supported as many as four villages: ‘Laanaay Llnagaay Village Town, Ts’iiGuugii.ga Llnagaay Place where people landed to dwell forever after, ‘Laana GaayGaagings Town that has water going over it, and K‘aasda Llnagaay.
As we approach the river we pass the cabins and homes of families that have come here to fish year after year. Along the way Kenny Williams recounts the endless jokes and adventures of the past, memories that stir such excitement for the approaching salmon run.
When we arrive at K’aasda Gandlaay, fish biologist Mark Spoljaric gets into a dry suit while the rest of the team dons waders and rain-gear. Alder leaves shatter the morning light, scattering it across the river bottom and illuminating spray from the powerful current that ushers forth from beneath a fallen hemlock tree upstream.
The fence consists of 37 sections of stainless steel bars that are about ten-by-two feet each. Each section is held down on its up-stream end by hooks embedded in the river’s bottom. Triangular props lift the down-stream end of each section out of the water, preventing returning taaxid from escaping upstream. The down-stream end of each section is floated with a large square of foam enabling the fence to rise and fall with the tide. Once the team wrangles it into place, the fence will herd returning taax_id into a route where fisheries staff can count them as they pass by. The count ensures the K’aasda Gandlaay’s taaxid population is strong and determines how long the fishery will remain open.
Spoljaric plunges into the strong current, crossing the river on the cedar “sill” that spans its bottom. Hooks embedded in the river floor will hold the fence in place, but first Spoljaric needs to remove a year’s worth of collected sand and debris. As he digs away spiraling clouds of sparkling silt rise, then disappear, clearing the water. Each shovel-full releases a rich and powerful odor – the lingering memory of last year’s run.
Bit by bit, Williams and his assistant bring the pieces of fence down to the river’s edge. Spoljaric pulls the pieces into the water with a splash, and then hauls the large, heavy sections through the current to the far side of the river where they are held in place by the hooks. Some are broken or bent, so each of the sections must be lifted high above the head and shaken back and forth to coax it into place.
It takes a lot of slipping, tripping, splashing, and soaking to get the job done, but bit-by-bit, the 37 sections of fence are hauled through the current, placed into position, and set onto the hooks. Some hours later Williams and Spoljaric wade along the fence’s downstream edge to hammer braces finally into place. These will hold each section to its neighbour so that they will all rise and fall on the tides together. Assistants follow behind and tighten the bolts that hold the braces.
Schools of fry have already taken refuge in the divot the team dug from the sand. The tiny taax_id flit carelessly between the steel bars, wheeling in a school no wider than a dipnet. These are the young of last year’s run. Soon they will head down-stream where they will enter the open ocean and we will see them again in four years when they return to this very spot to spawn.
The team finishes up just in time as rainy weather and cold wind begins to whip downstream. In a few weeks fisheries staff will return to the fence to count returning salmon to ensure taaxid populations are strong before harvesting begins this year.