Why Wild Alaskan Salmon

Salmon Run View From Above. Photo Courtesy of Alaska Seafood

When you see the wild streams filled with salmon, shaded by huge trees covered in moss and layered in rich undercover in Southeast Alaska, they seem unreal. Impossible even.

But really these wild places were the norm everywhere up and down the Pacific Coast and even the Atlantic coast. Before we came storming in to make the sprawl where it is difficult to even imagine the original primordial forest, home of the salmon. Today, in Oregon and Washington, the salmon must contend with geometric mazes of clearcuts, dams, rivers clogged with silt, and run-off from pollution. While we built a society for ourselves, we made things difficult for a creature that has been a partner of ours for thousands of years. In wild Alaska, there are coastal communities that still have this deep connection with the salmon. Places like Sitka, home of our fishermen’s co-op, surrounded by rich landscapes, where the partnership between salmon and human benefits all.

Wading through a salmon stream on Baranof Island. Southeast Alaska

Pre-contact, which is to say before Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery arrived in what is now known as the Pacific Northwest in 1805 and met the peoples of the Columbia River region, there were at least 1000 salmon to every human being. Reports of walking across a river on the backs of salmon today might sound like hyperbole, but when you see Alaska, even now, you might believe it. Pre-contact salmon on the eastern seaboard, particularly in New England, were comparable in numbers to the Pacific Northwest, with estimates of annual runs close to 12 million salmon, but are fractions of that now, measured in the thousands.

Overlooking the waters surrounding Sitka, Alaska.

Which illustrates how abundant Alaska is today, where we currently have annual sustainable harvests of 150 million salmon and more. Not to say that Alaska’s harvests have not been seriously threatened or not faced over-fishing–but by the time European-Americans made it to Alaska, they had learned a few things–not to block the entire river to catch salmon and not to take an entire run. Early Euro-American settlers harvested as much as 90% of the runs, which proved to be unsustainable for many streams in California, Oregon and Washington. In contrast, Alaska’s state constitution mandates sustainable runs and the state has brought well-trained biologists who place strict quotas on how much salmon from each run can be harvested, preserving runs for perpetuity.

For thousands of years, natives in the Pacific Northwest were sustained by salmon and back in Europe, too. Salmon were an important food stuff on the British Isles–plentiful and hence less expensive than other meats. The salmon were so common that they were disdained as a dinner. Then, catch methods were inefficient and population density low. Salmon later ended up becoming another victim of the industrial revolution and inevitable population explosion in the UK. In 1861, Charles Dickens warned: “A few years, a little more over-population, a few more tons of factory poisons, a few fresh poaching devices…and the salmon will be gone–he will be extinct. Shall we not step in between wanton destruction…and so ward off the obloquy which will be attached to our age when the historians of the nineteen-sixties will be forced to record that: ‘The inhabitants of the last century destroyed the salmon.’” Dickens, as usual, was prescient, as runs were nearly wiped out in the UK and many parts of Europe.

In New England efforts to protect salmon began as early as 1709. The impact of land use change was the first sign to make people aware of the dwindling salmon population, as small dams prevented salmon from reaching spawning grounds. Naturalist George Perkins Marsh noted in 1864 the effect man was having on salmon–the outcome of a proliferation of dams, impacts of the timber industry, pollution by mills and factories and soil erosion that clogged spawning beds: “The restoration of the primitive abundance of salt and fresh water fish, is one of the greatest material benefits that, with our present physical resources, governments can hope to confer upon their subjects.” Perkins understood the special connection between man, salmon, and the health of the habitat we share, something we still have in coastal communities in Alaska. Which makes what we have in Alaska very special–both abundance and wildness–which require careful management and self-restraint.

Old Growth Sitka Spruce

Decades ago, there was a thought that in order save salmon, we farm them. We domesticated cows and chickens–why not salmon? Though aquaculture for other species has become more and more necessary to feed a growing population, the first problem with salmon farming is that by choosing to farm–to make feedlot salmon–salmon farming regions are deliberately giving up on wild salmon populations. Though they say they are saving them–it’s just more lucrative to farm, yet many times there are disastrous effects to ecosystems around farms and the wild salmon in the area. Wild stocks in Scottish rivers declined as salmon farming grew there. Hundreds of thousands of fish escape from salmon farms every year, potentially weakening stocks. Farms also introduce concentrated wastes and diseases into rivers, estuaries and surrounding areas that many times otherwise would have been wild, producing algal blooms destructive to the ecosystems surrounding them. Recent toxic blooms in the Patagonia region of Chile that have killed off whales and shellfish have come from water conditions changed by an intense El niño but have been accentuated by the wastes from the salmon farming industry.  

Meanwhile, the health of wild salmon runs is an indicator of a clean environment. Salmon provide nutrients to forests and streams and the ecosystems and animal and plant communities that depend on them. Large percentages of the nitrogen in the bones and hair of brown bears comes from marine environments, transported there by salmon whose carcasses feed the bears, and other scavengers like eagles. Trees growing along streams to which salmon return grow up to three times faster than streams that aren’t graced by the visits of salmon spawning. In southeast Alaska this means that time to grow trees big enough to create wild refuges for bears and sanctuaries for humans decreases from 300 to 100 years.

Wild salmon are remarkably resilient creatures–not just their journeys “home” over thousands of miles. Given room and the opportunity, wild salmon can repopulate areas very quickly. For example, following the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, the North Fork of the Toutle River was totally devastated by boiling mud flows. Just a few years later salmon were finding their way back to the river, illustrating the advantage of having multiple multiple generations out to sea, which serves as a hedge for when disasters, both natural and manmade, occur. As long as the disasters aren’t too widespread or too frequent, wild salmon are persistent, a symbol of strength and resilience.

Brown bear chasing wild salmon. Photo courtesy of Alaska Seafood
Eat Seafood, Be Happy. Fisherman Caleb Robbins with a large king salmon.

Salmon need just a few basic things, things with which we would be better off with, too: cool, unpolluted water, stream beds unencumbered by dams, strip mining, or logging, a natural flood cycle, accessible habitat that provides cover from predators, where juveniles can grow before heading out to sea. Alaska remains a special, wild place where these things exist. We can preserve wild Alaska by protecting its wild salmon runs. These wild salmon runs exist because of the work fishermen do to protect not only their jobs, but truly special places that they are lucky enough to experience and appreciate. Like other small boat fishermen, Seafood Producers Cooperative member/fisherman Tom Fisher believes fishermen are the ocean’s best friends. “A healthy ocean is healthy for us. We don’t want to damage our livelihoods. We are the Eyes of the Ocean.” See the work that fishermen groups like Salmon Beyond Borders do to keep Alaska wild. And as always, #eatwildsavewild.

Post inspired by the book King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon by David Montgomery