Savoring Wild Salmon
Daniel Duane floats and fishes Alaska's healthy waters, glimpsing paradise regained
By Daniel Duane
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DOLLY VARDEN ARE A COMPETITOR SPECIES to salmon in these waters, and long ago fishermen thought Dolly Varden ate salmon eggs. A great way to boost salmon numbers, the geniuses decided, would be to kill all the Dolly Varden. Starting in 1921, the Alaskan territorial government offered a nickel for every Dolly Varden tail, collecting 2 million of them until biologists figured out that Dolly Varden ate only dislodged debris eggs, not viable hidden ones, and that Dolly Varden actually boosted salmon numbers by controlling an egg fungus. Biologists also concluded that most of the tails sold to the government as Dolly Varden were from salmon and trout killed for the nickel. So the bounties halted in 1940.
There used to be a bounty on bald eagles too, because they eat salmon. Between 1917 and 1953, the government paid hunters for the carcasses of 100,000 of our national bird. Then people realized that the birds had no negative economic impact and could therefore be allowed to live. But it's true, the part about eagles eating salmon. The eagle above my creek, a full-grown adult approaching seven feet across and weighing perhaps 15 pounds, soared down from time to time to snatch something from a tidepool--one of the spiderlike brittle stars, maybe, with their wide, alien-invasion legs. I saw fish carcasses all over; an eagle had beheaded one, leaving the clean-smelling flesh on the bones. If I'd been hungry enough, I would've eaten it. An eagle had ripped the head off another and somehow sucked the flesh right out of the skin, leaving a scaly pouch on the skeleton.
About 25,000 bald eagles live in southeast Alaska, nesting on ice-free coastlines where they can perch in old-growth trees and look for salmon and invertebrates such as urchins, clams, and crabs in the pools left by the dropping tide--or even dogs and cats wandering down from a cabin. In the Chilkat River valley west of Haines, several thousand eagles gather every winter for the late run of chum salmon. They'll take hunter-wounded ducks while they're at it, or sick herons, gulls, guillemots, cormorants, or puffins.
Here's the kind of thing I like: I've been told that Vancouver Canada geese do not allow eagles to fly above them.
Here's something else I like: sharing a food source with an eagle. I like staring into the same creek at the same fish and then staring up into a 400-year-old spruce and knowing the eagle can see me better than I can see it. I also like the rattle and caw of the raven watching us both.
HUMPBACKS CAN'T EVEN EAT SALMON. Toothless baleen whales, they stick to big schools of tiny fish like herring. The humpbacks I chased in my kayak were not fishing; they were cruising, looking. Surfacing and breathing--the blowing sound so loud and harsh as to startle--they dropped again. They followed a rhythm I could not mimic. It was too slow, like tapping your foot to a heart beating twice every 13 seconds, then twice every 30 seconds, and then back again. Once, I thought I'd lost the whales. Then I heard the blast of their breathing and snapped my head around to find them closer than I'd expected. Closure, in that chase, looked like this: Two whale tails lifted flat up before my eyes, only 20 yards ahead, shimmering and dripping in the blue sky and then slipping into the deep.
A Fine Kettle of Fish Why Alaska's salmon thrive
Alaska's healthy waters produce some of the most reliably productive fisheries in the world, from halibut to pollack to sablefish. But it's the wild-caught Pacific salmon that makes the "Last Frontier" the champion of sustainable seafood sources. Pink, coho, sockeye, red, and king, wild Alaskan salmon are among the most environmentally friendly options on the market. What makes these salmon so special, and why are Alaskan fisheries among the few that environmentalists and biologists recommend?
GOOD FISHERY MANAGEMENT If you catch all the fish this year, there won't be any left next year. That's the predicament the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Pacific Salmon Commission avoid by implementing a strict system of catch quotas each season. Scientists estimate the number of fish in the sea, then the two agencies set limits on how many salmon fishermen are allowed to catch. In many fisheries throughout the world, such management does not exist. That's why numerous species are harvested to dangerously low levels, prompting a group of scientists led by Boris Worm of Nova Scotia's Dalhousie University to project a worldwide fisheries collapse by 2048.
MINIMAL BY-CATCH When fishermen target a species of fish, they often end up hooking tons of other fish and animals they're not interested in. This unintentional haul is called "by-catch," most of which is discarded, dead, into the water. Alaskan salmon fishermen use gillnets and purse seines, nets that target salmon very well, resulting in minimal by-catch. Trolling with baited lines and hand lines is also great for minimizing by-catch, while the longlines used to catch large fish like tuna, swordfish, and mahimahi end up snaring endangered seabirds and sea turtles.
LIGHT ON HABITAT The same gear used in Alaskan salmon fisheries to avoid by-catch doesn't come in contact with the seafloor, so there are virtually no adverse effects on the surrounding habitat. Trawls that are used to catch bottom-dwelling creatures like flounder, cod, rockfish, and shrimp, however, are dragged across the seafloor, damaging everything in their path.
A HARDY SPECIES Some fish are just easily overexploited. The orange roughy, for example, can live for 100 years or more, produces few spawn, and doesn't reach sexual maturity until about age 20 or 30. So roughies caught now won't recover for several decades. Salmon, however, mature early, and females produce thousands of eggs each season, providing abundant offspring year after year. —Michael Fox
ON THE WEBFor more information on sustainable seafood, visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program online atseafoodwatch.org.
The humpbacks I heard from the motorboat were fishing. We heard the whales' querying call-and-response, deep underwater--huge, quiet beings sending tones through water to signal one another. We are such profoundly social beings and our brains are so hardwired for language that we search for feeling and meaning in almost every natural sound, and we don't struggle to find it. The whales had indeed found a school of herring--the boat's radar showed them as little fish symbols below--and our guide told us the whales were blowing a bubble net. Circling the school, the humpbacks blew walls of bubbles to create a visual pen around the little fish, and the whales even turned their big lateral fins back and forth to flash the silvery-white skin underneath, scaring the herring into an ever-tighter pod. Researchers say that certain whales play certain roles again and again in these bubble nets: One gives the organizing call every time; another blows the bubbles. We all heard a baleful soprano cry, beginning low and then rising and rising as the whales gathered beneath the huge cloud of fish, opened their mouths, and surged at the distant daylight.
While they rose, we humans stopped focusing on our ears and the sounds they gathered, and we turned the center of our minds to the evidence of our eyes, scanning the blue water around the boat. Ten monstrous mouths erupted into the air at once, like massive open mussel shells. Ten whales weighing around 79,000 pounds apiece--that's 790,000 pounds of living mammal--burst through the surface. Then they fell onto their sides, with their bellies perhaps full, and rolled around a little, blowing air and breathing. Eventually, the whales' backs humped up as their heads pointed straight down for the dive, and then the tails flipped into the air and sliced down and away without a splash.
I KILLED MY FIRST SALMON with a penknife, a tiny little thing on my key chain. The fish bit my lure and hooked its lip onto my barb, and I took two steps backward to haul it onto the sand. That was it: Two steps away from the water and the fish found itself flapping on the ground. Not much of a fight, but like I've said, that was not the point. I'm not a sportsman. I'm an appetite. I opened my penknife, and while the fish whipped around in my hand, I shoved the little point through the salmon's chest and into its heart until red blood beat out of the hole and onto my fingers. A fishing guide had shown me that in Homer, Alaska. He preferred a knife to the heart to head clubbings, he'd told me, and he had a very good reason. I couldn't remember the reason, and because the punctured fish was still flapping, and it was upsetting to me--I'm not inured to these things--I clubbed it with a rock after all.
Another man was there from the camp. He was a lifelong fly fisherman from Colorado, and when I asked if I should gut my salmon now or at dinnertime, he said he didn't know. "I've been a fisherman all my life," he said, "but I haven't killed a fish in 25 years."
Two Sitka black-tailed deer appeared in the dense fireweed by the trees; both bucks, they had velvety three-point antlers and no apparent fear. Around here the deer sometimes eat ribbon kelp.
I wanted more fish, so I needed to keep my dead one cool. I found a long strand of bull kelp and cut it with my penknife and threaded one end through a gill and out the fish's mouth. Then I wrapped the far end around a boulder so the fish could float in the cool creek without drifting away. I went back to casting, throwing my lure across the stream and reeling it in again. Sometimes I dropped the lure in front of individual fish. Eventually the tide dropped enough that no salmon were left in the big pool; they'd all moved out to the creek mouth, off the beach. But in between lay a stretch of nearly dry creek--maybe ten yards' worth--and I saw a salmon fighting its way upstream, wriggling slowly but frantically across bare wet sand, exposed to the air and my hands and any passing bear and the beak of the eagle. But I didn't grab the fish because I couldn't bring myself to, and no bear passed by because it was daytime and I was standing there, and the eagle did not swoop, also because I was standing there.
After a long, awful struggle, the fish found deeper water and rested. Other salmon were in the same position: trapped in a small pool, vulnerable to anybody with a net. I realized that one fish would fill my belly, so I picked up that first salmon and hung it over my shoulder by the kelp. On the walk back to camp, I lingered in the land laid bare by the tide, and I saw acorn barnacles and Pacific blue mussels, plovers and reddish-orange anemones. The weather is supposed to be awful around Petersburg--endless rain--but I never saw a cloud. Every time a salmon leaped into the air off that beach, I heard it slap back down. Every time a sea lion thrashed around, I heard the splashing. Every time a distant skiff started its motor, I heard the cough-cough-rumble. When I saw an octopus--pointed out to me by the camp host--the octopus saw me. Its red eye turned toward us, and I remembered a grilled octopus dish I'd had in Portugal. The octopus scurried away.
The spawned-out salmon didn't taste great--when it comes to eating, pink salmon don't have anything on coho, king, or sockeye. But the point was to see my fish in this water after chasing those nearby humpbacks, and to know that this particular salmon had come to land again after years in the ocean, drawn precisely to a nowhere little stream nobody cares about, and then for me to enter the food chain more or less where an eagle or a bear might--by sticking my hand into the middle and pulling out a life.
Daniel Duane is a frequent contributor to Sierra. His most recent story was "The Boar Wars" (March/April 2007).