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Strongholds in the Pacific Rim; Keep Salmon Wild

Sockeye salmon spawn from July through February in Kuril Lake on South Kamchatka

 

In 1892, Livingston Stone, a Minister and avid fisherman called upon the US government to create a salmon park, saying,

“Let us now, at the eleventh hour, take pity on our long persecuted salmon and do him the poor and tardy justice of giving him, in our broad land that he has done so much for, one place where he can come and go unmolested and where he can rest in safety.”

We have yet to pay attention to those great words, stated over a century ago. While recovery efforts are critical in some areas, the nations of the North Pacific must work together to create and maintain a network of strong, healthy salmon ecosystems – strongholds of diversity and abundance. This proactive investment in robust salmon ecosystems provides an alternative to waiting until near extinction to try to reverse the effects of habitat degradation and overharvest. Fortunately, there are rivers across the North Pacific still intact and teeming with wild salmon. By identifying and protecting strongholds of robust salmon productivity in key rivers around the North Pacific Rim, we can direct our efforts toward conserving still healthy and intact salmon ecosystems. Wild salmon rivers are core centers of abundance and diversity, serving as the foundation for healthy wild fisheries, healthy economies, and healthy communities. Protection of wild salmon strongholds must be at the heart of every federal, regional, tribal, and local conservation strategy.

One of many covert salmon roe operations on Kamchatka

Q&A with Laura Williams, Senior Advisor, Western Pacific Programs, Wild Salmon Center

1. Having spent time in both Russia and the Pacific Coast of the US, how do you feel salmon influence these cultures?

While living for four years on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the northern part of the Russian Far East, I was managing various projects on biodiversity conservation and venturing out to distant communities, jostling my way onto small cargo planes, helicopters, and all-terrain vehicles to reach the most remote parts of the peninsula. Every step of the way was filled with signs of people making a livelihood from salmon: in spring, fishermen hauled nets and salt in anticipation of the fishing season; in summer, tourists cradled fly fishing poles and compared lures; and in fall, travelers toted odd-shaped packages of king salmon frozen in ice and wrapped in paper.

But it wasn’t until I visited a small Koryak reindeer herding community in the northern part of the peninsula, however, that I began to understand how ingrained salmon was in the culture of Kamchatka’a people. The reindeer herders had settled alongside Russians on the banks of a beautiful salmon river, which cut through pristine tundra and mountain ranges. Along the river, they had constructed fishing huts – loft-like structures – where salmon meat is hung to dry. Entire families were literally camped on the river from early July, when the salmon began to run, to late September. At one such camp, I observed an elderly Koryak woman laying salmon meat out on the gravel bank of the river to dry. A little girl, maybe 8 years old, stood nearby, holding the head of a salmon. She bit into the raw flesh just above the eyes and chewed on the cartilage. On her face was the same look of pleasure that I had seen on those of my sons, when biting into a succulent peach or coveted candy bar. She tossed a fish eye and then a jawbone to the husky standing, panting at her feet.

I watched in amazement, feeling only a little bit of revulsion. At that moment it hit me – salmon had been a part of this community for generations, centuries even. Salmon was to this child what Saturday morning pancakes or ice cream cones were to mine. This community knew the salmon life cycles as well as we know the changing of the seasons. They anticipated the coming of the salmon, celebrated its abundance, and mourned its absence. There were good years and bad years – the latter cause either by natural fluctuations or intense poaching downriver. In good years, they would set aside enough food for their families and sled dogs and barter the rest for dry goods. In bad years, they would go hungry, racking up tremendous debts through the winter at the village store, with the only hope of extinguishing them in the next good salmon run.

When I traveled to the Iliamna River basin of Alaska with a group of Kamchatka sport fishing outfitters hosted by Wild Salmon Center, I found that much of the culture in remote communities was similarly dependent on salmon. Despite the differences between our countries – language, political, or otherwise – salmon is what unifies the peoples of the North Pacific. In this shared geography, salmon is a cultural icon, a food staple, and an ecological cornerstone.

Koryak woman fileting salmon

2. Why do you care about salmon?

Actually, I came for the bears. I have always been interested in the study and conservation of large mammals, and especially predators such as brown bears and wolves. On Kamchatka, I realized that the richness afforded this peninsula was due to two factors – the volcanoes which spewed mineral-rich ash over the land and waters, and the salmon, a few notches up the food chain from the microorganisms that fed on these nutrients. In turn, here, the abundance or scarcity of bears and other creatures higher up the food chain (including humans) depends entirely on the abundance or scarcity of salmon. Watching the devastation that was happening to otherwise pristine salmon rivers from poaching, and finding that, as a result, the viability of one of the densest bear populations in the world was at stake, I understood that if I didn’t care about salmon, I couldn’t do anything for the bears or the myriad of other species which depended on it. When I was afforded the opportunity to work with the Wild Salmon Center on conserving these rivers, I knew I had found something close to my heart – safeguarding Kamchatka’s wilderness for bears and other wildlife through protection of entire salmon ecosystems. So I stayed for the salmon.

Rangers burn poachers' nets at Kuril Lake

3. Have you seen a positive shift in the conservation of wild salmon over the past 5 years?

In only three years, we have seen the elimination of mass poaching in Kamchatka’s richest watershed – Kuril Lake and its only outflow, the Ozernaya River – the largest sockeye spawning area in the western Pacific. Through the unfaltering efforts of conservation groups such as Wild Salmon Center, World Wildlife Fund, stalwart rangers of Russia’s preserves, and the growing commitment of commercial fisheries to sustainably managing the resource, this area has been transformed from a multi-million dollar covert salmon poaching operation, where millions of fish were killed each year for their roe alone, to a safe and secure nature preserve for millions of spawning salmon and nearly 1,000 bears – most of which are mothers and cubs.

Anti poaching rangers on Kuril Lake

4. What are you focused on right now?

Mining for gold and platinum is the next big threat to Kamchatka’s salmon rivers. The Russian Government has approved a strategy to triple gold production on Kamchatka in the next 15 years, and the peninsula holds the third largest platinum reserves in the world. Unfortunately, you can’t strike a shovel into the earth on Kamchatka without somehow impacting a salmon watershed – and open mining is probably one of the most severe and irreversible threats to freshwater ecosystems. Yet, since it would be impossible to stop this economic “progress” altogether, I am working to form a partnership between Wild Salmon Center and Kamchatka’s foremost mining company aimed at implementing the world’s best practices to reduce impacts on salmon ecosystems, sharing lessons learned from other salmon-bearing nations, increasing dialogue with local communities, and funding the offset of negative impacts through conservation of still pristine salmon rivers and ecosystems.

Koryak girl and her dog eating salmon inards

About Laura Williams

Laura is formerly head of the WWF Russia Kamchatka/Bering Sea Program, where much of her work was focused on salmon and ecosystem conservation. Laura has been actively involved in Russian nature conservation since 1993, when she moved to Russia to open the first office of WWF in Moscow. She lived for nearly 10 years in a remote nature reserve and wrote a book on her experiences, called The Storks’ Nest: Life and Love in the Russian Countryside. She received a bachelor’s from Cornell University in International Environmental Policy and a Master’s from the Yale Forestry School in Conservation Biology. Her interests include biodiversity conservation, protected areas, and climate adaptations in Russia.

About the Wild Salmon Center

The mission of the Wild Salmon Center is to identify, understand and protect the best wild salmon ecosystems of the Pacific Rim. We devise and implement practical strategies, based on the best science, to protect forever these extraordinary places and their biodiversity.

Why is Salmon Conservation Important? by Guido Rahr,  President of The Wild Salmon Center

Watch the longer version of the Salmon Strongholds video here!

The views expressed in this guest blog post are those of the International League of Conservation Photographers and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Readers are welcome to exchange ideas or comments, but National Geographic reserves the right to edit or delete abusive or objectionable content.

Mother and cub feeding on salmon in Kuril Lake