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Fishing for Wild Salmon in Alaska

By Rowan Jacobsen, "Swimming Upstream," March/April 2012

Alaska’s wild salmon have been heralded as healthy, tasty and sustainable. Even better news, they’re back in record numbers. Here’s why.


READER'S COMMENT:
"I love Salmon but can't bring myself to buy it after Fukushima..the waters are contaminated now. "

Even in Alaska's free-running rivers, however, salmon face the constant threat of overfishing. Thousands of fishermen patrol the mouths of Alaska's rivers; historically, some rivers were lined with nets from one bank to the other. To survive, salmon need to be given a fighting chance. And this is where the Alaska Department of Fish and Game comes in.

Thirty-three miles upstream from the mouth of the Copper River (a week's journey, as the salmon swims), I stood in a tiny shack on the riverbank, gazing out the window at the turgid water, thick with glacial silt. I couldn't see into it, but I knew there were thousands of fish surging up it, because an employee of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was sitting beside me with a clicker in his hand, staring at a screen connected to a sonar array in the river. "We're 'The Men Who Stare at Fish,'" he muttered, then clicked again. The screen looked like an ultrasound monitor, but the grainy images showed fish after fish wriggling upstream. And he counted them all.

From years of observation, Alaska's biologists have a pretty good idea of how many salmon need to make it upriver to sustain the population and when those salmon arrive. The state maintains 15 sonar stations on its most important salmon rivers and it allows fishing down at the river mouth only after enough fish have passed by for any given time in the season, with nothing between them and their spawning grounds except the occasional bear. Any time the numbers dip, the fishing grounds temporarily close. When I stood in the Copper River sonar station on July 21, 2011, 822,753 sockeyes had passed, which was more than 70,000 above the target for that date, and fishing had been going full-tilt on the flats for more than a month.



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