Redfish Creek flows into the West Arm of Kootenay Lake, close to where I live. This aptly named creek has long been a spawning grounds for the region’s kokanee, a sockeye species identical to the ocean version, except that it adapted to live in freshwater only when it was stranded here long ago by melting glaciers. In the indigenous Salish language, Kokanee (kekeni) means ‘red fish.’ The stream has been designed for maximum spawning success and includes a gate system that funnels fish briefly into a holding tank to be counted. Here’s a pair being netted.

The fish are strikingly beautiful as they approach the spawning grounds. For some reason that day, I was more interested in the fish that were all washed up. Many were floating dead in the stream, some of them victims of what fish biologists call “warm water mortality.” After a long hot summer, the streams are not as cold as the spawners like them. The fish technician on the job that day pulled a dead female out of the water. She had died before she could release her eggs. He sliced open the belly to show me the riches that had not reached the stream gravel.
It was a different sort of beauty, one that spoke poignantly of a lost opportunity.

We may see more dead fish like this as the creek waters warm in response to hotter summers. And while it all seems tragic, a dead fish is not just a dead fish, washed of its blood-red brilliance. A dead fish is bio-mass for the ecosystem, a form of productivity that feeds the ravens and herons swirling in the sky around the mouth of the creek. A dead fish also decays into the stream or on its banks to offer micro-scopic foods for smaller fish and plants. It fattens the bears for hibernation.

In the great, churning mass of life, everything has its place, even death.

Written by Eileen Delehanty Pearkes