Here in the southwest corner of Alaska known as Bristol Bay, in a region about the size of the state of Washington brimming with freshwater lakes and streams, exists one of earth’s grandest and most spectacular wildlife pagents—one whose numbers exceed the past great migrations of bison and passenger pigeons, and which, in the short history of humankind, has proven far more important.
As their ancestors have done for countless millennia before them, these young salmon will grow and mature over the next few years, descend freshwater streams to the sea, travel over one thousand miles throughout the North Pacific Ocean, then return with remarkable timing and precision to ascend, spawn, and die in the waters of their birth.
Although the journey of salmon is a well-known phenomenon, what isn’t widely acknowledged is that Pacific salmon have disappeared from 40 percent of their original range, and their survival is at risk in another 27 percent. In Alaska’s Bristol Bay—home to the world’s greatest wild sockeye salmon population—they still occur in numbers almost beyond belief, both humbling and stirring human imagination.
During the Pacific Northwest’s heyday of the 1800s, before dams, erosion, pollution, and overfishing destroyed its fishery, the bountiful Columbia River Basin produced about 16 million salmon each year. As recently as 1995, nearly four times that number—62 million salmon—returned to Bristol Bay. Stacked nose to tail, that many fish would stretch all the way around the earth at its equator. They would weigh more than one thousand blue whales.
How this corner of Alaska came to be home to the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery is the story of a unique freshwater landscape closely tied both to the sea and the land’s denizens—wildlife and people; a landscape whose continued existence depends upon a healthy and viable salmon fishery.
“The salmon is the sea’s silver messenger,” a Yup’ik woman once said. “It says to all of us who live here: ‘Never forget who gives you life.'”
Our Past and Future
The First Inhabitants
The vast waterlands of Southwest Alaska formed in the final glacial retreat of the Pleistocene era about 12,000 years ago. Salmon, spreading eastward from Asia as sea levels rose, soon moved into nearly every body of water flowing seaward from the Alaskan mountains. On the tails of fish came early humans, migrating also from Asia. What they found in this salmon-based ecosystem of the Nushagak River and surrounding coastline was more hospitable than the harsh frozen landscape of their Beringia homeland. They soon settled and the Yup’ik Eskimos who occupied the region at the time of contact with Western explorers are their descendents.
The Real People
The Nushagak River and Bristol Bay basin of Southwest Alaska are the southern extent of Eskimo culture that depended upon fish and marine mammals and once occupied the Russian Far East across the top of North America to Greenland. The Yup’ik (translated as “real” or “genuine” person) date back about 3500 years in Bristol Bay and today many native people still depend upon a subsistence livelihood, hunting walrus, seal and beluga along the coast, while inland hunters utilize caribou and moose. But salmon, particularly red or sockeye salmon—which occur in greater numbers here than anywhere on earth—are the keystone species upon which this incredibly rich ecosystem depends.
A Salmon Country Unequaled
Russians first arrived in the region in 1818, but it wasn’t until America purchased Alaska in 1867 that enterprising Americans saw potential for profit in the immense salmon runs. In summer 1884, the first commercial cannery was built at the mouth of the Nushagak near present-day Dillingham. The mother lode of salmon had been struck. By the early 1900s, fishermen sailed two-man drift gillnetters in grueling and dangerous conditions to net countless millions of salmon. In turn, canneries became all-powerful conglomerates whose chokehold on Alaska became the prime impetus for statehood in 1959. Today, commercial salmon fishing faces increased economic pressure from over-capitalization, tempestuous market conditions, and the worldwide farmed salmon industry—conditions that threaten the economic livelihood of area residents, and ultimately threaten the stability of this complex ecosystem.
Southwest Alaska’s salmon populations have waxed and waned over the past century, and although science and past conservation have contributed greatly to our knowledge of the species, much is still unknown about salmon population dynamics. One thing, however, seems certain. The fate of the great runs of salmon are intimately dependent upon their rich environment and human willingness to protect it in perpetuity. Together, humans and salmon share both past and future of one of the last great wild fisheries on earth.