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.

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