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

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

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."

That was something I haven't heard in a long time. I write a lot about seafood, and I've grown used to listening to older fishermen say, "I'm the last in a long line; my kids don't want any part of this." The story is similar across the world: depleted stocks, desperate fishermen, ecological crisis. Cod's gone, tuna's done and sea bass and snapper are off the menu. Wild Atlantic salmon is endangered, as are many Pacific salmon runs in California, Oregon and Washington. I've come to assume that no fish stock can be intensively harvested by human beings and remain sustainable. Yet across Alaska in recent years, record-breaking salmon harvests have coincided with record-breaking returns of fish to their spawning grounds. Alaska has more salmon in its waters now than when it started keeping track more than a century ago, and prices and demand are high. "Lately they've been killing it," Bert Lewis, Alaska Department of Fish and Game fisheries biologist, told me. "People are getting rich on this. In 2010, we set the record with over 70 million pink salmon harvested at basically $1 per fish. That's putting some money in the bank." Something in Alaska has gone tremendously right. And, if wild fish are to have any place in our future, we need to understand what.

Part of the reason the current good times feel so good to fishermen like Mike Poole is because there have been plenty of bad times in Alaska's commercial salmon fishery, which began in the early 1900s with canned salmon and by the 1930s was harvesting more than 100 million fish most years. There was virtually no management of when and where fish were caught, and populations crashed. By the 1950s, harvests were down to about 25 million fish. In 1959, Alaska became the 49th state and, in a move that now seems way ahead of its time, wrote sustainable management rights into its constitution, which mandated that "fish…be utilized, developed, and maintained on the sustained healthy yield principle." To protect the future of its salmon industry, the state limited catches, introduced hatchery fish to boost populations and in 1990 banned fish farming. It has worked. Over the past two decades, statewide harvests have averaged an incredible 150 million salmon. Some years have surpassed 200 million fish.

Thanks to these efforts, in 2000 the Alaska salmon fishery achieved certification by the Marine Stewardship Council, the world's leading seafood sustainability certification program. According to Kerry Coughlin, MSC's regional director for the Americas, "The Alaska salmon fishery became the first U.S. and the largest fishery at the time to become certified to the MSC standard, serving as a model of sustainable management for fisheries everywhere."

To meet the MSC standard, Alaska fishery managers demonstrated to an independent team of scientific experts that they successfully maintain salmon stock levels, there is minimal impact from fishing on the marine ecosystem that supports the stocks and there is ongoing responsive and effective management of the salmon fishery.

That "responsive management" is what sets apart the Alaska salmon fishery. Most fisheries set a target quota and stick to it, and sometimes end up overharvesting. In Alaska, however, fisheries managers watch the populations as they progress through their life cycles and adapt the quota to what they estimate can be sustainably harvested.

Making these estimates requires understanding the unique life cycle of salmon. The sockeye that I held on Mike Poole's boat, for instance, probably hatched from the gravel bed of a clear forest stream hundreds of miles up from the Copper River Flats. (About a quarter of Alaskan sockeyes are hatchery raised, then released into the same river systems.) As a young fish, she made her way downstream, then headed out to sea, scarfing down tiny crustaceans and packing on pounds. Programmed for wanderlust, she roamed across the north Pacific. And somehow found her way back, five years later. Once she closed in on the mouth of the Copper River, she could smell home. Loaded with nutrients from her years at sea, she prepared to make her last journey, during which she would not eat. If she hadn't had the misfortune of running into Mike's gill net, she would have powered her way 300 miles upriver, gaining a thousand feet of altitude, fighting the seven-knot current all the way, responding to her earliest smell memories until she was within a few feet of the exact place where she was born. There, surrounded by others of her generation, and accompanied by the male of her choice, she would have picked her spot, turned sideways, beat away a depression in the river bed with her tail, and laid her eggs. After the male sprinkled sperm over the top, she'd have swept gravel over the nursery. And then, her life's mission complete, she'd die within days.

Keeping salmon populations sustainable is simply a matter of letting enough of them complete that spawning journey to seed the next generation. Unfortunately, on most of the world's salmon rivers-which once included almost all the rivers of the northern U.S., Canada and Europe-dams have made that impossible. They have been the kiss of death for some extraordinary salmon runs, including the Columbia, which once may have held 16 million salmon, but now holds just 2 million. "When they put those dams in," Bert Lewis says, "they made a choice to have cheap electricity instead of salmon." So far, Alaska has chosen abundant salmon and expensive electricity.

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.

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.

Of course, we could just eat farmed salmon, which live in pens and don't require us to preserve the integrity of the surrounding environment. Then we could fill Alaska with as many mines and hydro plants as we want. (Right now, on the other side of Alaska, the Pebble Project, a massive copper and gold mine, has been proposed for the headwaters of Bristol Bay, the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world.) But something immense would be lost. We consumers have made great strides in understanding that when we eat, we are consuming little pieces of the world and participating in entire systems of being. When I eat a farmed salmon, I'm eating the fattened product of grains, fish chow, antibiotics and a lack of exercise. But when I eat an Alaskan salmon, I know that I'm savoring a mountain-bred, river-raised, Pacific-pastured hunk of wild Alaska. And, by supporting the sustainable fishery, I'm helping to keep it that way.

In an icy pool amid a tangle of alders, I found them. A dozen flame-red sockeye salmon patrolled the pool, darting at each other and dueling for mating rights. Sockeyes' skin turns magenta as a mating signal, just before they run out of gas, having expended every ounce of energy to make it back to their nurseries. The end was coming for these 12 at any moment. Between duels they lay quiet, trying to summon more strength. They seemed to be struggling so much that I had an instinctive urge to reach into the pool and help them, but I knew better. I took one last look, then slipped away.

Contributing editor Rowan Jacobsen is the author of A Geography of Oysters and Fruitless Fall. His 2009 EatingWell article "...Or Not to Bee," on the decline of honeybees, won a James Beard Award.

March/April 2012