Each year, salmon make their way from the Pacific Ocean into the Strait of Juan de Fuca just south of Vancouver Island. It’s the first major waterway they encounter in their migration home, and their return brings them right to the doorstep of Sooke, a small coastal town in southwest Vancouver Island, a half-hour drive from Victoria.
The Sooke region has known bountiful salmon stocks for millennia. Like so many BC towns, it takes its name from a First Nation: the T’Sou-ke First Nation came to the mouth of the Sooke River where salmon gather to spawn, and they have called it home ever since. Today, salmon remains one of the most important resources in the area.
In the 1800s the Hudson’s Bay Company began to harvest that same salmon, brining the fish for distribution along its networks. Then in the 1900s, the fish traps came. A local company, J.H. Todd & Sons, used fir logs that stretched out off the coast to funnel returning salmon into a trap, then to the cannery and eventually to shops around the world, according to local historian Elida Peers.
After the war, returning veterans turned to fishing to make ends meet. By the 1980s, industrial commercial fishing was in full swing, and the word got out to sports fisherman the world over that Sooke is an angler’s dream.
The Sooke Region Museum is bringing this history and more to life with its latest temporary exhibit, Seeking Salmon, which runs until spring 2018. Brianna Shambrook, curator of the exhibit, quickly discovered the history of salmon in Sooke is a human one. “As I was doing research, the number one thing that kept popping up everywhere was human impact,” she says.
Initially, her and her small crew wanted the exhibit to focus on the relationship people have with salmon, but they decided to change the focus to impact instead – how humans have interfered with local salmon populations. It’s something she hopes will resonate with visitors.
The temporary exhibit, which runs until 1 April, 2018, is both artful and educational, providing information about the environmental conditions required for healthy salmon, how different species can be identified, and the salmon’s life cycle. It also shows different ways salmon can be prepared for consumption, and what it takes to keep salmon in Sooke’s waters.
The exhibit comes at a time when sockeye fish stocks continue to decrease in the area. The Sooke Salmon Enhancement Society, which operates the Jack Brooks Hatchery that releases eggs into the Sooke River each year, is featured as an organization that works with its army of volunteers to increase the salmon population. “Everyone knows we have a hatchery, not everyone knows why” explains Shambrook.
The T’Sou-ke First Nation’s traditional means of harvesting and preparing salmon for food is explored, as well as artifacts related to commercial fishing. Shambrook also worked with local artists to create original artwork, and spent months collecting above and underwater video footage at the hatchery and Sooke River to produce a short documentary.
“I hope that kids will enjoy it as much as adults because it’s something they’ll be surrounded by their whole lives if they live in this region.”
If you’re interested in checking out the Sooke Region Museum exhibit and public art, check out their website for more details.
And If you can’t make it over to Sooke – you can explore the Pacific salmon migration by taking our interactive journey.
Cover image: Shambrook designed the ocean display, which features seaweed made by local Blacksmith is Ryan Fogarty. Photo by Brianna Shambrook.
Sooke Salmon Enhancement Society, “Hatchery Process”