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.

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

In addition to the sonar stations, Alaska counts its salmon using test nets, weirs, towers and aerial surveys. Bert Lewis spends a fair amount of his time flying around Prince William Sound in a Cessna, counting black clouds of salmon in 208 different bays and river mouths. His office employs 30 to 40 people during the summer just to oversee the salmon fishery. "Fishing in Alaska is a $5 billion industry, the second-biggest after oil," Bert told me. "We're well-funded because of that."

All the management in the world wouldn't matter if Alaska didn't have an environment that could support those salmon and that's what I kept thinking about my last day on the Copper River, as I followed a creek into the hills in hopes of seeing some salmon in their last stage of life. The secret to healthy salmon, R.J. Kopchak, development director of the Prince William Sound Science Center, told me, is no secret at all: "It's just a small population and a huge landscape. And really difficult places to get to." Alaska is filled with streams that are still pollution-free, that aren't clogged with runoff from roads and mines, that haven't had their protective canopy of trees cut down. Salmon thrive in that environment.

And they give back to it. By spending their lives gathering calories from the sea and then delivering those calories hundreds of miles inland, salmon supercharge their landscapes with marine energy, just as they do for our bodies. The decaying carcasses of millions of salmon become sustenance for the next generation, as well as a bonanza for bears and eagles, who then spread those nutrients across the watershed. Ninety percent of the protein in Alaska's brown bears was once part of a salmon. Sitka spruce near salmon streams grow much faster than Sitka spruce growing elsewhere. Salmon and their environments are inseparable. And that, I realized, is the real secret to keeping the fishery sustainable. Salmon are one of the things a healthy northern environment—one that hasn't been crippled by dams or mines or logging or farming—produces in such abundance that millions can be taken by people without harming the population. They're like a bonus gift the landscape throws our way as a thank you for taking care of it.

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