Alaska’s Other Gold

A decade ago in late July, my wife, MC, was picking salmonberries at the edge of the forest on Admiralty Island when she startled a brown bear. I spoke to the bear gently as MC backed away. As we left, we walked past the end of the berry patch, where we had stashed our kayak, to the edge of a meadow where the sea met a stream. Pink salmon leapt continuously into the air. Hundreds, maybe thousands, were schooled up at the mouth of the stream. 

That evening, we went to retrieve our kayak. Next to its hull lay a bright, silver-colored pink salmon with one large bite taken out of it. Nearly all the salmon we’d watched jumping had begun to mottle with their spawning colors. I knelt over the salmon, pondering why the bear had dropped it there until I sensed the bear was bedded nearby in the brush. I spoke to it, and it shifted, crackling brush, at the sound of my voice. MC and I kayaked away, over schools of pink salmon blackening the water with their dark backs. There were so many that at times they landed on our kayak. When we were a few hundred yards out, a large bear emerged from the salmonberry patch and lumbered down the coastline toward a stream full of salmon.  

A school of chum salmon smolts in Hartney creek in Prince William Sound wait for the tide to change so they can migrate out to sea.  Thomas Kline, alaskastock.com

Salmon people

The Tlingit people, who have lived on Admiralty Island and in southeast Alaska for centuries, have numerous stories about the importance of salmon.  One is “Shanyaak’ utlaax̱,” which, in English, translates to “Salmon Boy.” Versions of this story are told by other tribes across the Pacific Northwest. The  gist is that a boy is given a piece of salmon and, upon finding it has mold on it, spits it out in disgust. This breaks an important taboo. He is punished—some might say educated—by being turned into a salmon, which gives him an understanding of the sacrifice salmon make. When the boy, in the form of a salmon, returns to the river near his village, his father catches him. His mother cuts into his flesh and finds a copper ring that belonged to her son. She recognizes that the salmon is her child. The boy is brought back into his human form and eventually becomes a shaman able to communicate with salmon. 

Salmon have been a mainstay for Alaska Native people for centuries. Here, a participant in the Celebration 2022 Parade in full regalia and an ornate mask walks in a procession on the final day of the event held every two years in Juneau. Celebration is one of the largest gatherings of southeast Alaska Native people, at times including 2,000 dancers as part of the ceremonies. (Photo: Christopher S. Miller Ð csmphotos.com)

Many Pacific Northwest tribes call themselves “Salmon People,” which underscores how vital and intertwined salmon are to people, water, and land. Salmon inhabit both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. While there is only one species of Atlantic salmon, there are seven species of Pacific salmon. In southeast Alaska, and the rest of the Pacific Northwest and Alaskan waters, the five species of salmon that spawn and rear here are often viewed in a gastronomical hierarchy. Pinks, the smallest, are colloquially called “humpies” for the humpbacks males develop as they near their spawning grounds. They are at the bottom. Chums, which are famous for their green and purple spawning colors and are sometimes called “dogs” or “keta,” come next. Cohos, the most athletic leapers, are often called “silvers.” They’re generally considered to come in third. Sockeye salmon, called “reds” for their crimson spawning colors, are considered by some people to be the best eating. Most consider the king, or chinook, salmon, which are the rarest, largest, and have the longest life cycle at four to seven years, to reign above the rest. Regardless, all salmon are a gift.

Backbone of the Ecosystem

In Southeast, where I was born and live, pink salmon are the foundation of the ecosystem. A female pink salmon will lay between 1,000 and 2,000 eggs in a “nest,” called a redd, that she digs in the gravel of a stream. Not long after the eggs hatch, the fry go out into the ocean. After two years there, just a tiny percentage of those salmon survive and return to their natal stream to spawn. A salmon’s ability to travel thousands of miles and return to the same spot on the same creek where they were born isn’t entirely understood. One theory explains that: As they grow in their freshwater habitat, salmon are imprinted with a local pattern of the Earth’s magnetic field that they later use to guide them back home. Salmon also have an incredible sense of smell, which assists in finding their natal streams. A small percentage of fish stray and colonize new watersheds, which is ecologically vital.

A female sockeye salmon excavates a redd, or nest in which to deposit her eggs, in gravel. The male then fertilizes them with his milt. The term “redd” derives from a Scottish word meaning “to clean an area or make it tidy.” After spawning, all species of Pacific salmon die, completing their lifecycle. Thomas Kline, alaskastock.com

Everyone loves eating salmon—including much of Alaska’s population of bears and wolves. After a salmon spawns and dies, its carcass continues to feed fish, birds, invertebrates, and even the forest. Bears spread the remains of salmon through the forest. Along with bear scat, salmon acts as rich fertilizer. Some studies show that up to 70 percent of nitrogen found in riparian foliage comes from salmon remains. Trees along salmon rivers tend to grow much more quickly, and to grow bigger, than trees along rivers without salmon. 

The Salmon Crisis

Wild salmon were once abundant throughout much of the northern hemisphere. Not so long ago, the English feasted on prolific runs of salmon from the River Thames. By 1830, with the advent of industrialization, urbanization, and overfishing, salmon returned there no longer. A similar pattern of decline and extirpation followed in river after river as colonization, population growth, and an industrial approach to wild places spread to other regions of the world. Dams blocked (and, in many cases, continue to block) salmon returning to rivers where they were once prolific. Salmon canneries set up at river mouths caught everything and then threw away the dead fish they were unable to process. Timber companies logged streams down to the banks, eliminating the shade, and varied stream structure, necessary to a healthy wild salmon stream. Industries dumped and leaked waste into streams. Cities grew up around rivers and roads crisscrossed what had once been salmon habitat. Runoff, which includes chemicals toxic to salmon, and development, continue to compromise streams in the Pacific Northwest.

Eyes can be seen in these developing sockeye salmon eggs laid in the gravel of a creek on the Copper River Delta near Cordova. Thomas Kline, alaskastock.com

By the mid-20th century, state and local governments began working to replace wild populations lost to all these causes with salmon bred and reared in hatcheries. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on subsidizing hatcheries. While the results have temporarily boosted certain regions’ populations, there are growing questions about hatcheries’ long-term viability, and the impact they are having on wild salmon populations. Hatcheries in the U.S., Canada, Russia, South Korea, and Japan have been pouring out pink salmon—and, many believe, harming wild salmon. In Alaska, hatchery salmon amount to a whopping one-third of the commercial catch. While hatchery fish may fill the nets of commercial fishing boats, they don’t return to streams to spawn and contribute to the overall ecosystem. And when they do “stray” and go up a stream, they may degrade the run, with, among other things, lower genetic diversity. 

The kind of wild pink run MC and I experienced only a decade ago was once ordinary. I took that day for granted. But a few years after that trip, southeast Alaska’s wild pink runs, along with a lot of Alaska’s salmon runs, began to decline. For the last several summers, when I’m on the same coastline MC and I paddled, I see an emptier ocean, home to a small fraction of its normal salmon populations. Many people dependent on wild salmon—for jobs, sustenance, or traditional ways of life—are reeling and worried for the future.

Sockeye salmon dangle in a choked gillnet, waiting to be hauled aboard a drift boat in the Bristol Bay commercial fishery. Bristol Bay has the largest run of sockeye salmon in the world and produces half of the commercially caught sockeye salmon globally. Christopher S. Miller, csmphotos.com

Winners and Losers

Most biologists believe that human-caused climate change is the main cause of decline of salmon in much of Alaska. The ocean is changing so rapidly that it’s hard to grasp what’s happening. A big warm spot dubbed “the blob” showed up in the Gulf of Alaska a few years ago. In 2019, salmon returned to freshwater systems so warm that thousands of them died of heat stroke before they could spawn. Changing temperatures mean different amounts, and kinds, of prey in the ocean. King salmon from the Bering Sea and across the Pacific Northwest are being hit the hardest. On the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers—the biggest in Alaska—salmon returns are so low that a disaster declaration was made and people aren’t being allowed to fish. Children for whom fish camp should be a way of life are growing up with no memories of catching and processing wild salmon the way their ancestors have, and the way their parents did. The 75,000-square-mile Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is home to nearly 25,000 mostly Native people living in 58 rural communities. For thousands of years, they have depended on salmon. Many are pessimistic. Unless people change, they say, wild salmon could easily become a thing of the past. 

Ironically, warming ocean temperatures appear to be at least temporally boosting sockeye salmon populations. Bristol Bay’s 2022 sockeye return was a record-breaking 79 million fish. That number accounts for around half of the world’s sockeye salmon population. (In early 2023, after decades of urging from tribes, fishermen, Alaskans, and Americans, the Environmental Protection Agency approved Clean Water Act protections for Bristol Bay, ensuring that the region and its incredible run of sockeye are protected from the Pebble Project, a massive mine proposed for Bristol Bay’s headwaters.) The 2022 run of sockeye salmon in the Taku River, which is the most productive salmon watershed shared by southeast Alaska and British Columbia, was the best commercial fishermen had seen in decades. 

Melting glaciers and a warming Arctic are also, for now, opening up more streams and rivers for wild salmon. Just a hundred years ago, if I walked behind my home in Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley, I would have hit a wall of ice. Today, a 10-minute walk behind my home takes me to a creek that supports small runs of sockeye and coho salmon. When my son was a few years old we’d walk there to watch salmon spawn. He sat on my shoulders through rain, sleet, and snow as he watched the salmon holding strong against the current, giving birth to the next generation. Salmon spawn even as they are dying, their flesh beginning to decompose, and these were covered with fungus and sores. When snow began to stick around, their bodies were torn apart by eagles and ravens. The next spring, their eggs hatched, and the cycle continued.

Sandy Craig with a king salmon caught on the outer coast of southeast Alaska. Photo by Bjorn Dihle

Hope for Salmon

Each summer, I walk a number of salmon streams. The smell of rotting salmon often triggers in me reflections on death and regeneration. Last August, while scouting for a new potential bear-viewing area, I walked a stream on Admiralty Island with a couple of friends. It had the best run of pinks I’d seen in years. Female bears, cubs, and small adult bears fished the lower stretches. The big males fished deep in the woods, far from where people might disturb them. It was humbling to watch as salmon spawned and died, knowing that they had beat 1,000-to-one odds to make it to this moment. In the gentle evening light, a small bear caught and devoured a few salmon before catching a whiff of another bear in the nearby forest. It retreated to the opposite bank, then into the woods. 

A subadult closely watches as its sibling catches a sockeye salmon at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. (Photo: Christopher S. Miller Ð csmphotos.com)

A few other bears appeared as shadows lengthened into dusk. The sun had nearly set by the time we left the woods and headed back to camp. Nearby were middens and other evidence of the ancient relationship the Tlingit have with this place. Archeologists had found fish traps on that stream dating back at least 3,000 years. That night, as we made dinner and listened to salmon jumping in the failing light, I thought of the story of Shanyaak’ utlaax̱, or Salmon Boy. Tlingit stories often have multiple layers and teaching points; one person may understand one point, and someone who has heard it many times may understand that and much more. As I tended the fire that night, I kept coming back to the same lesson: that there is hope for us and for salmon—if we respect them, care for them, and understand that our fates are intertwined.  


Bjorn Dihle is Alaska magazine's gear editor and a lifelong resident of southeast Alaska. You can follow him at instagram.com/bjorndihle or facebook.com/BjornDihleauthor.

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