Article — From the May 2009 issue

Fast Fish, Loose Fish

Who will own Alaska’s disappearing salmon?

( 3 of 10 )

Salmon owe their unique color and flavor to their unique lifestyle. They begin life in redds, depressions the females make with their tails in the gravelly bottoms of clear-running mountain streams. The fry spend their first months traveling down their home river, then moving to a brackish estuary and transforming their body chemistry so they can survive the salinity of a marine environment. Then they swim to the ocean, where they feast on tiny crustaceans that are rich in orange-red carotenoids. Salmon are the only fish that store these carotenoids in their muscle fiber, turning it pink. Carotenoids are powerful antioxidants that help protect tissue against oxidative stress, and salmon must prepare for an event of profound oxidative stress: after six months to seven years at sea, depending on the species, at something like ten times their original weight, they return to their natal streams. They make the famous long journey upriver and finally, at the place where they were born, they spawn and die.

By dying, salmon donate their resources to their offspring. The carcasses become food for aquatic insects and freshwater crustaceans, which in turn feed the juvenile salmon, who will also eat their elders’ remains directly. And by setting up their young with all the riches of the sea, salmon also spread the wealth around.

The fabulous forests of the Pacific Northwest, for example, were in many ways created by salmon. When the last ice age’s glacial fingers relinquished their grip on the region some 10,000 years ago, they exposed a barren landscape. The pulses of salmon wriggling upstream helped engender new life, as if the ocean were impregnating the land. Salmon convey millions of pounds of marine protein to the mountains, fattening bears and eagles alike. Up to a third of the nitrogen on the valley floors of the Pacific Northwest was once salmon, and Sitka spruce along salmon streams grows three times as fast as spruce near non-salmon streams.

Once they begin their spawning run, salmon do not eat. They must swim upstream all the way to their birthplace, navigating by smell, carrying their fuel with them in the form of fat—solidified oil. This means that salmon born on a long river will have more oil and muscle than salmon born on a short river. And the Yukon River is the third longest in North America, cutting two thousand miles from its mouth at the Bering Sea, past Emmonak and the Yukon Delta, straight through the heart of Alaska, to its headwaters in Canada’s Yukon Territory. It is the perfect environment for king salmon, the largest species. Whereas other salmon range between three pounds and eighteen pounds, kings reach forty pounds or more. (The heaviest on record was 126 pounds.) Many kings swim the entire length of the Yukon to their spawning streams in Canada. The most sought-after salmon in the United States is the Copper River king, whose oil content is up to 17 percent of its body weight; the Yukon king tops out at more than 30 percent.

The Bering Sea is one of the few bodies of water on earth that can provide enough food to provision such a journey. Colder seas create an upwelling effect, whereby nutrient-rich deep waters—the marine equivalent of rich soil—rise to the sunlight, triggering tremendous plankton growth. Each spring in the very cold Bering Sea, a favorite haunt of whales and whalers, the melting ice pack retreats like a cloth whipped off a table. This plankton bounty nourishes pollock, salmon, halibut, king crab, marine mammals, and 80 percent of the U.S. seabird population.

Fattened in these rich pastures, the Yukon king is unbelievably succulent. A fillet is two inches thick and slides apart gracefully into huge, glistening flakes. The first Yukon kings of the season can, at $30 per pound, command more than $600 per fish in Seattle or Tokyo.

Pull a Yukon king out of a net near Emmonak, just as it is beginning its spawning run, and it looks like a shimmering torpedo, thirty pounds of speckled black back and pearlescent sides alive with pink, purple, green. Like all torpedoes, this one is built for a one-way mission. The nose cone holds the homing equipment, expertly designed nostrils that can discern the waters of birth from a thousand others, and the sides bulge with propellant; the payload is held underneath. As it powers upriver it deflates, burning oil and muscle in its mitochondrial engines, the fuel gauge hitting empty just as it arrives home, the coloring no longer silver but enflamed bright red, nothing left to do but blow out sperm or eggs over the gravel, give it all to the river, and die a bag of skin and bones. Under ideal conditions—no fishing, lots of food and habitat—about five of a female’s four thousand eggs will return to the stream as adult fish.

By the time a Yukon king reaches Canada, the succulence is gone. The First Nations people of the Yukon Territory, however, still base their diets and their economy on the kings, just like the Yupik. But for those kings to reach Canada, a lot of Alaskans must keep their hands off of them. The Yukon River Salmon Agreement, signed in 2002, calls for a minimum of 33,000 kings to be allowed to pass into Canada each year to spawn, and about 25 percent of the total allowable catch must be reserved for the Canadians.

And so it was—until 2007. That June, the Yupik took their legal quota, based on the estimate of that year’s run size—35,000 kings to sell and another 50,000 kings to eat. But somehow fewer than 30,000 made it to Canada—not even enough to maintain the population. The Canadians had to cancel their entire commercial, sport, and subsistence seasons. As far as they were concerned, the people on the lower river had stolen their fish.

This situation upsets the Yupik. Dora Moore, an Emmonak resident, was part of a cultural exchange committee that traveled to the Canadian end of the river to see what they do with their fish. “I hated those kings,” she told me as we sat in her kitchen dipping biscuits in seal oil. “They were so skinny. So ugly.” Fat—whether seal blubber or salmon oil—is the stuff of life in the subarctic, and seeing their beloved kings so emaciated violated the Yupik’s sensibilities. Let the fish travel upriver to spawn, sure, but why harvest half-dead individuals that could have been taken in prime condition in the delta? “If you apply common sense to who you are and what you came from, it’s not fair,” said Moore. “This is my way of life. Those Canadians up there, their economy is so high. And for them to be doing sport fishing? Who has more right? Do we get caribou right outside our door like they do? No, we get the king right outside our door, and that’s what they need to understand. How dare we have that treaty. Where’s our natural resource? Where’s our tourism? They have other options. They’re taken care of. They’re fine.

“I don’t pay attention to seasons,” an eighty-four-year-old man who was fishing with his great-grandsons told me as he fired up his outboard and motored upriver, patting the bowl of his belly and smiling. “My stomach tells me when the season opens and closes.” Yet other than the octogenarians, not many Yupik risk the fines or boat impoundments that come with being caught poaching.

The real question, of course, is what happened to the fish?

Rowan Jacobsen is the author of, among other books, Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis and The Living Shore: Rediscovering a Lost World.

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