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. "

One day last July, Mike Poole stood on the bow of his 32-foot bowpicker Gussie and hauled in his net, watching dime-bright sockeye salmon flop onto the deck. Summer's saturating sunlight bounced off the glassy waters near Prince William Sound and made Alaska's jagged coastal mountains shimmer like a snow-capped mirage. Everything was white and blue and silver. Mike counted salmon. At age 52, he's fit and friendly, with grooved crow's-feet and a permanent smile etched on his face. He's been fishing the Copper River Flats for 30 years. "Man," he said, "sometimes you almost feel guilty being out here, it's so nice." Mike then took a knife out of his pocket and cut the fishes' gill arches to bleed them out as quickly as possible, and climbed into the hold. I lifted the quivering, six-pound fish and handed them to Mike, who nestled them into a bed of ice.

These were sockeyes that hatched in the Copper River five years earlier returning from all over the Gulf of Alaska, loaded with the nutrients and omega-3 fats they will need to sustain themselves on their long journeys back to their spawning grounds. During the spawning run salmon don't eat, so the longer the run, the richer the salmon, and the Copper River is one of the longest in the United States, and one of the fastest-running. Since May, these fish, prized for their intense flavor, had been arriving in record numbers, which helped to explain Mike's smile.

Mike pointed to another bowpicker working the flats. "That's my son's boat," he said. "He's got a degree in physics, but it's no competition with the money and the lifestyle up here." Mike's other son also has his own boat. "It's pretty sweet. I get to work beside my boys all summer."

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