That salmon, he needs a clean place to go; his home better be clean. Otherwise they don’t reproduce. The Dena’ina People over here in Nondalton have been here for a long time; over ten thousand years. We never used to be concerned about clean water until now, when we heard about Pebble. We never used to be concerned about our caribou or our moose or all those other critters out there that rely on clean water. ~Rick Delkittie, Native Village of Nondalton
Of the many species that rise to the level of wild icons, the salmon should stand at the summit. Though we often think of wolves or bears as the stars of the wilderness, with regard to salmon it’s hard to imagine an animal that crosses so many boundaries, remains vital in so many cultures, or that has maintained its status and popularity over such a long period of time. Through our increasing and expanding knowledge of biology and ecology, we know the importance of what are called keystone species: a species that has a disproportionately large effect on the communities in which it occurs. In the case of the salmon, when you consider its impact that may be an understatement—if a fish could be royalty, salmon reign not only as Kings but also Queens.
Historically, salmon swim through time beyond the memory of anything human. They trace their existence in large populations on the west coasts of North and South America for well over two million years. In that time they became essential to the health and ecology of the land, water, and the many plants and animals that fill these spaces. Of the five species of salmon, the Chinook, or King, can grow to 125 pounds. At least 137 different species depend on salmon: microorganisms, bears, eagles, mink, river otters, as well as orcas—larger males can eat more than 400 pounds of salmon a day. If salmon disappeared from the land- and oceanscape, they would take all this life with them.
Let’s not forget our human ancestors, who came to revere the salmon with spiritual devotion. Salmon kept them healthy, stood as the divider between starvation and subsistence, from the coast to far inland as the great fish passed through the vast rivers toward the headwaters to spawn. Our modern salmon fisheries are also critical economic resources. Yet as salmon populations decline, as they have since Captain James Cook’s time, our human fortunes decline, as well. Currently indigenous peoples from the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada rely heavily on the fish for survival—the last remaining salmon cultures in the world exist here. The Yup’ik people of Alaska alone estimate that 86% of Alaskan indigenous communities will see a broad variety of impacts in the next 50 years due to climate change. As the salmon runs fall and seawaters rise because of global warming, many of these tribal peoples make the difficult decision to move away from their traditional habitats.
As vital a resource as this anadromous fish is, salmon face many threats along the entire space they have known throughout their existence. Atlantic salmon are functionally extinct with Spain’s wild population close to failing, as well. Overfishing and global warming mark a major threats to the species’ survival. Invasive species, such as genetically modified salmon, escape their farm pens and merge with wild salmon, diluting strong genes and potentially passing on new diseases. Ocean acidification may be the largest issue as the oceans suck up excess carbon from our factories and power plants, not only making the waters less healthy for salmon but dissolving the shells of small mollusks on which North Pacific juveniles feed. Without proper nutrition right after birth, they will not grow into the strong adults who make it back to their ancestral headwaters to spawn. If they can make it to the headwaters at all. The top threat to the existence of salmon in western North America shuts access almost all major river systems with a plug of concrete: dams. Pulling down these obsolete dinosaurs would go a long way to restoring health and salmon to these waters, yet even as the removal of some dams begins, new projects like the Susitna-Watona dam in Alaska move forward. More dams are the last thing the remaining salmon need for survival.
Another obstacle to salmon continuance lies in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska: the development of the Pebble Mine project. The proposed gold and copper mine shows potential to bring in $400 billion in revenue over its life. The only problem: it sits at the headwaters of two major estuaries that contain all five species of salmon, of which the sockeye alone make up 32 million fish annually. The company proposing the mine says they can dig while performing the magical feat of doing no harm to the ecosystem, but the Center for Science in Public Participation feels otherwise: their paper on the Pebble mine demonstrates that the tailings pond dams where the castaway mine waste would be placed shows “probable loss of or significant damage to waters indentified…as important for spawning, rearing, or migration of anadromous fish”—that is, the bay, river deltas, and rivers through which the salmon must pass from sea to spawning grounds and back, as they have done since time immemorial. One crack, one failed dam, and the entire river could be filled with toxic mining byproducts that could end this migration for good. Though regular operations of the mine, if approved, will place toxins in the streams anyway.
If you love salmon and the hundred-plus species that rely on them for survival, you can do one simple thing to ensure their continued existence in this wild, amazing place: stop the Pebble Mine, and save Bristol Bay.
If the salmon have a future, those of us who care about them must strive to act with active compassion, not only to maintain their survival but all the other life they engender. Dr. Benedict Colombi of the University of Arizona states plainly, “The entire ecosystem relies on the returning salmon.” The salmon got here first, long before us, and the history of the salmon merges with our culture, our stories and songs, no doubt even our DNA at some level. Unlike so many species that have gone by the wayside during our tenure on this Earth, we still have time to save the salmon. The question is, do we have the will to keep our Kings and Queens on their wild thrones?