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Where have all the salmon gone?

The Humber River was teeming with this year's run. But salmon populations are declining elsewhere in Canada, leading many to question whether that will always be the case.

A worker with the Canadian Department of Oceans and Fisheries tosses a sockeye salmon back into the Adams River near Chase, British Columbia, which is northeast of Vancouver, Oct. 10, 2006. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

TORONTO, Canada — Few would describe Toronto as a beautiful city. Its most distinctive architectural feature — red brick Victorian townhouses and mansions — have for years been losing the battle against the wrecker’s ball and green glass condo towers.

Thankfully, however, Toronto has been blessed by nature. Rivers and wooded ravines snake through the city and down to Lake Ontario. They are havens for wildlife and people.

One of the more spectacular bursts of nature in Canada’s biggest urban environment occurs every year around Canadian Thanksgiving. It’s the salmon run up the Humber River. And it’s a sight to behold.

The run last month, through the city’s west end, attracted avid anglers, giddy amateurs and onlookers like me, marveling at the sheer number and size of the salmon. The river was alive with them. Fishermen wading through the low running water could literally reach down and grab the salmon as they thrashed on the rocky riverbed to spawn.

The pros cast fly rods. The amateurs would stand above the salmon and lower baited hooks in front of their mouths. One group of youngsters scooped them up with a net, which must surely be illegal.

Hauling them out took time and effort. Anglers with bent rods zigzagged up and down the river until the exhausted fish could be heaved out of the water like logs. They were fat and almost three feet long — and that’s the truth.

Most were gently released, which was probably a good idea. Not only is it sporting, but the salmon have bulked up on the soup of chemicals and sewage in the Great Lakes. Those eagerly hauling them to shore generally spoke foreign languages, which perhaps suggests they were newcomers who hadn’t yet figured that out.

The Humber salmon run this year was in striking contrast to what has been happening on the other side of the country, on the Pacific coast.

The legendary sockeye run in British Columbia’s Fraser River has collapsed, its decline so steep and fast that Prime Minister Stephen Harper ordered a judicial inquiry Nov. 5 to find out what’s gone wrong.

The inquiry, to report by May 2011, was called after only 1 million sockeyes returned to spawn on the Fraser this fall. Between 10 million and 13 million had been expected. Scientists are using words like “disaster” to describe the turn of events.