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Dying Eagles the Symbol of a Dying Earth



Re the Loss of Chum Salmon and Loss of Bald Eagles along the Coast.

In the past 2 days I have done over 12 radio and tv interviews and another 5 for newspapers.  There is great concern over the hundreds of bald eagles dying along the British Columbia coast.  I have devoted a life to eagles so this hits home.  But the real problem is why are these eagles dying?

This tragedy that has been building up since the beginning of November, when it became apparent the entire Alaska and British Columbia runs of chum salmon had experienced catastrophic low returns for spawning. This foreshadowed a lot of migrating eagles and bears attempting to put on fat for winter, not having their normal great resource to do this. 

The first signs of the problem, was the delight of our getting an unprecedented number of eagles and a month early arriving at the Chehalis - Harrison Rivers.  Our Fraser River Bald Eagle Festival was about to get, and did get, record numbers of eagles.  By mid December we had a world record of over 7200 bald eagles in about a two square km  section of the Chehalis - Harrison flats.  A wondrous site.  In fact a biological phenomena like I have never seen before.  But there is a downside.  The why?


The 'why' was early apparent.  All, or most, of the chum salmon runs had been disastrously low.   Few or no salmon carcasses were spawned out and rotting on the river shores.  The eagles, wolves and bears were not getting their fall and winter food.  The eagles are more mobile and they, not finding the fish carcasses on the northern coast, simply kept coming south.  But still few fish were available.  The big number of eagles arriving and accumulating on the Chehalis - Harrison was the result of a lucky coincidence.  That river complex did not have many chums either but the eagles' arrival was just at the time of the normal coho run.  While not a big coho run, the eagles were thankful for anything.  The eagles filled the valley.  But the coho carcasses only lasted another 3 weeks and then were simply eaten up by the eagles or swallowed by the great sturgeon that swim in these rivers sucking up the decaying salmon bodies.

Then the disaster.  The eagles went onward looking for still more salmon but few were to be found anywhere.  Many eagles simply tried other options. They search the farmlands and roadsides for winter or calving deaths and road kills. More explored the coastal areas looking for washed up fish or seals.  But juvenile eagles, specifically one and two year olds, have little or no ability to hunt.  They depend, from August through January and into February, on the salmon carcasses -- easy free available protein.  But not this year.

The scrounging eagles accumulated at every city landfill in record numbers.  At the Vancouver landfill, 10 days after the eagles' departure from the Chehalis, I counted 1387 eagles -- a record for any time during my last 10 years of following their numbers.  A neighborhood farmer who lost a cow at birthing has about 12 eagles constantly feeding with another dozen or two in the fields and trees waiting their turn.

The eagle is adaptive but there is a limit to their adaptability when the main food supply, the spawned out salmon carcasses, are not in any stream.  It was not just a matter of moving to the next river -- each next river also had no salmon.  The large die off of eagles along the entire coast from December until now is simply due to the lack of the main food source -- the chum salmon.

The regional bird rescuers or rehabilitators have been swamped with starving eagles.  Most starving eagles of course simple drop to the ground, hide away to avoid being eaten by something else, and disappear into the ground.  We don't normally find starving animals. 

The options to help are poor.  Sure, if you had a 500 pound dead cow to place out that would serve 25 eagles for another three weeks.  How many dead cows did you say you had?  When we so disrupt nature the consequences can be horrendous.  I suspect, of the 25,000 juveniles eagles along the west coast at this time, that perhaps 50 or more percent of the 1 or 2 year old birds will not survive this winter.

But let's look for some optimism.  Today, the end of February, the adult bald eagles are already fixed to their breeding territories getting ready to lay their eggs over the next month.   For the juvenile eagles, which are free to roam all winter and spring to find food, nature's next bonanza is the herring spawn in March and then the oolachin spawn in April.  Now these spawns follow the salmon spawns with a sizable gap of time.  But that normal time lag, about 4 to 6 weeks at most, when the salmon were gone and before the herring started to ball up, was considered stressful but seldom catastrophic.  But going from August through March is simply not an option for many young eagles.  Hence this year's eagle die off.

Yesterday, at the fish docks, I learned that the first of the herring test fishery was taking place today -- so perhaps, even our well over-fished and diminished herring stocks will yield relief to a few juvenile eagles over the next few weeks.  Then, at least on a few remote rivers, there might still be a few oolachin spawning to assist through April and into May. The earliest of the salmon again begin to appear in the northern Alaska rivers in June. The cycle goes on.

So what can most of us do?  After you have disposed of your last dead cow in the bottom pasture you can concentrate on helping with the main problems of the world:  promote birth control, wiser use of the resources and, perhaps as the Hancock Wildlife Foundation is trying to do, support some more ecological research (We need funds to support student research.) and education (why we fund the cams!) on how we can responsibly work towards a more sustainable world.  At the moment humans only talk this line - we do not live it.  The eagles would love you to think "real sustainability", not growing infinite green acres of tea, wheat or corn to produce gasoline.  We can only sustain life at anywhere near our present levels of consumption if we greatly bring down our human populations by responsible breeding.

Eagles nor herring nor insects can live without a fully interrelated habitat.  Each needs to live on and with many other creatures.  So do we.  Perhaps the one thing you now don't want to hear.  The ecologically most destructive human activity, that activity that destroys more living creatures and more biological diversity, is commercial mono-cultured farming. 


David Hancock





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