The Amazing Waterworld of the Wild Alaskan Salmon

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Every year, 40 million of these fish swim through the rivers and streams surrounding Bristol Bay. Will a new mine destroy this intricate ecosystem and its $400 million industry?

salmon.jpgBarton Seaver, a chef and National Geographic fellow, tosses the remains of a sockeye salmon back into the water. (Mark Rutherford)

Late June and early July mark the peak of the biggest run of wild salmon left in the world. The sockeye salmon migration of Bristol Bay, Alaska, can number more than 40 million fish, and the commercial fishing industry in the region is worth more than $400 million.

The author filed this report via satellite as he traveled the region. His trip was particularly timely: Right now, the United States Environmental Protection Agency is deciding whether to prevent what could be a 10 billion ton copper and gold mine in this remote, sensitive area -- something many fishermen fear could spell the end of this magnificent run.

It takes a lot of country to grow a lot of salmon. But not just any country. For a salmon system to work, there needs to be an unusual and interconnected conveyance of water through an ecosystem -- something that seems obvious, but which is endlessly interesting when you start honing in on the details of an intact salmon system.

For the last week, I have been floating down the Stuyahok River, one of the many rivers that feed a 40 million fish annual run of salmon. Hiking up a ridge line on Tuesday we took in the landscape in the shadow of what could become the continent's largest copper and gold mine -- the so-called "Pebble Mine" deposit. All around us were tiny lakes -- "potholes," they are called.

These lakes seem completely cut off from the rest of the water in the system, but in fact they are merely temporary expressions of a vast underwater flow, coming to the surface like a pockmark or a pimple. Water is forever moving under the spongy tundra, coursing through it, bursting out in one little lake here, another small stream there. And throughout, these underwater currents interconnect. According to the nonprofit conservation organization Trout Unlimited, salmon researchers have on occasion found salmon juveniles swimming underground.

When Pebble Mine supporters here defend their belief that 10 billion tons of ore can be processed without undue damage to the salmon fishery, they maintain that their footprint will be only a few square miles, that they will only be working within the context of a creek or two and a handful of pothole lakes. But it is frankly quite difficult to say where one watershed ends and another begins. Cartographers can point to the above-ground flow of rivers, but as with an iceberg, this visual part is just the tip. The real business of salmon country, the fundamentals underlying it all are never seen with the human eye.

Anyone who guides this country has felt this viscerally. Mark Rutherford, my guide on this trip, used to be a firefighter for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. While fires certainly presented their challenges -- and the sometimes 7.0 strength earthquakes did as well -- the thing Rutherford notes as causing the most damage and change are the floods. "I have seen an Alaska log cabin picked up in its entirety, carried two miles down river and deposited on a sand bank completely intact with food still in the refrigerator," he told me over the campfire one evening. Indeed, Mark always makes sure that every campsite we choose on the river has an easy escape route to high ground.

But floods do much more than shake the insignificant fleas of human habitation off the great hide of the land. Floods represent a great co-joining of all the complex hydrology that permeates everything. As we walked over the tundra in high summer here, we found it spongy and dry. But when months of rain and snow melt accumulate, at a certain point the yards deep layer of lichen and moss can hold no more water.

And then, all at once the tundra belches forth a great gust of flow. And all the rivers -- the Stuyahok, the Mulchatna, the Kvichak, the Nushagak and all other thousands of little unnamed rivulets of this vast country -- swell and overwhelm, and all is intermingled. In such a great deluge, it is difficult to imagine all the mining waste remaining safely tucked behind the containment infrastructure instead of spilling out and joining in all the aqueous good fun of the pure water downstream.

Everything here is floating delicately above a coursing, living circulatory system. Everything here can slip away at a moment's notice.

***

At the end of our journey, I found myself confronting a different kind of river that might be the biggest enemy to salmon kind. I'm talking about roads.

During our week of floating and fishing the Stuyahok River, we saw more salmon than humans. Conversation grew intimate. Electricity and plumbing were absent. But as we approached the muddy confluence with the Mulchatna -- a river accessible to jet boats from lodges strung downstream -- we heard the sound of a gasoline motor. The camp satellite phone came alive. Then the float plane landed, and we were whisked down to what now seemed the metropolis of Dillingham, Alaska, population 2,481.

Take a look at any map of the lower 48 and find the rivers and streams that will inevitably crisscross whatever geographic region you may be looking at. Notice that paralleling nearly every major watercourse is a road. From an engineering standpoint, building roads next to rivers makes sense. Rivers naturally cut through hills and mountain ranges, obviating the need for blasting new pathways. They tend to rise and fall gradually, also something that makes for a nice course to follow when building a road.

But roads are generally very bad for rivers and the fish that inhabit them. Not only do metals and petrochemicals come off cars and slip off road surfaces into adjoining watersheds, but roads create a whole range of difficult barriers for salmon. Every sizable river hosts many smaller tributaries that join it along its course.

When a road is built along a river, those little tributaries are either filled and paved over or are contained within a ridged tube called a culvert. Either option effectively destroys a small portion of a salmon run. Filling destroys streams; culverts increase current velocity and make them impassible to salmon juveniles. Indeed, roads are a major reason why salmon and trout are in such bad shape in the lower 48.

One of the reasons salmon are so healthy in Alaska is that there are very few roads in the state. Many Alaskan towns are islands when it comes to roadways, isolated from long range travelers and accessible only by airplane. And it is the issue of new roads that hangs so heavily over Bristol Bay and the proposed Pebble Mine project. 

If constructed, the Pebble Mine endeavor will need to move many tons of supplies on a regular basis in and out of a remote area. To make all this work, a road will have to be constructed, a portion of which will pass along the shores of Iliamna Lake. Iliamna is the largest lake in Alaska, over 70 miles long. A multitude of salmon-bearing streams tumble into the lake, and the lake itself is host to a major salmon aggregation, which spawns along the beaches that new roads would likely abut.

In addition, a pipeline containing processed ore will also have to be constructed, and this, too, will have to cross rivers and perhaps run along Iliamna's shores. It is not very difficult to imagine things working out poorly for salmon if this major reworking of the watershed were to occur.

But all that is still hypothetical. Pebble Mine does not exist. Bristol Bay is still largely roadless. Riding in a taxi along one of the few roads that does exist on one of my last days in Alaska, my driver turned on the radio. But instead of some top 40 radio station, I heard instead the odd voice of Alaska Fish and Game announcing the status of the commercial sockeye salmon fishery. Over 800,000 fish had moved through during the last week, and the numbers were only increasing. Soon they would be joined by millions more fish, and they would fan out and break away and turn left and right up the dozens of confluences according to their specific genetics.

People who would seek to tame Alaska say that the place lacks infrastructure. That it needs the trappings of modern life to become civilized. But for the people who depend on salmon and relish the region's wildness, no better infrastructure need be created. For them the best infrastructure of all is unbounded, salmon-choked rivers.

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