How Restoring Wild Salmon Restores Ourselves

By Jonathan Wlasiuk

How Restoring Wild Salmon Restores Ourselves
Photo by Bethany Goodrich

Every Day is Earth Day for Wild Salmon


How Restoring Wild Salmon Restores Ourselves | Sitka Salmon Shares

Wild salmon have a keen sense of home. Their connection to place defines them like few other species. After several years and traveling sometimes thousands of miles, wild Pacific salmon can return to their exact spawning grounds to give birth to a new generation. This behavior, called anadromy, allows Pacific salmon to break out from their freshwater habitats, gives them access to the abundant marine ecosystem in the Pacific Ocean, and leads the species to populate rivers from Korea in the west to California in the east.

Scientists haven’t been able to fully unlock the mystery of how salmon perform this trick, but research suggests that the fish have the ability to sense electromagnetic fields and their powerful sense of smell allows them to navigate. Commercial fishermen like Jeff Farvour are well versed in all the variables that impact salmon runs. “I actually struggled on my boat,” Jeff says of the 2021 salmon season. “Normally, I do pretty good, but salmon are really sensitive to electricity so if your voltages are off on your boat that won’t help.”


Fisherman Jeff Farvour hauls a king salmon onboard the FV Apollo.

Both commercial and sport fishermen know that each species of salmon responds differently to the size, behavior, and color of the lures at the end of their line. Given their size, it’s no surprise that king salmon are more likely to chomp on larger spoons and spinners than a coho or keta salmon. Sockeye salmon, which prefer eating low on the food chain—species like zooplankton and shrimp—won't bother with a traditional lure, which is why our fishermen and trusted partners rely on gillnets to catch these deep-red marvels. By knowing what they eat, we know the best way to catch them.


SALMON PEOPLE

“You have to go out and listen,” Professor Steve Langdon tells me during an interview. I reached out to Dr. Langdon because his life’s work is studying the relationship between indigenous Alaskans and their environment. He knows a lot about listening. I asked him about the relationship between indigenous knowledge and conservation policy in the state of Alaska. “I think the simple answer is that there is no relationship,” Dr. Langdon tells me. State and federal officials have a history of distrust and opposition to indigenous subsistence practices. “It’s to be submerged, suppressed, and ignored,” Dr. Langdon says.

Officials haven’t taken indigenous knowledge seriously because it conflicts with core beliefs in Western science that distinguish life by taxonomic differences. The Tlingit people (and many other indigenous communities) view both humans and salmon as “people.” This understanding is documented in the story of salmon boy, or Shanyaak’utlaax̱, an oral narrative shared by Indigenous communities throughout the North Pacific. In it, salmon boy discovers that the salmon people are organized into clans and humans have a moral obligation to salmon if they are to return to their home streams and sustain future generations. Salmon boy reunites with his family and emphasizes the importance of how the ritual handling of fish ensures their return. The story is also a warning: to waste salmon is a form of disrespect that is not only rude, but threatens the subsistence base of the entire community. 


This local, indigenous knowledge is referred to as “engagement,” rather than stewardship or sustainability—terms associated with 20th century environmentalism and conservation. Dr. Langdon says that “engagement” is not only “built on respect and carrying out mutual moral obligations,” but demands continual communication between communities and salmon.

Chilkat elder Joe Hotch describes how this communication between fish and human persists in the present. “[W]hen they’re [salmon] jumping, we are supposed to say ‘Ey Ho!’,” Hotch says. “Just keep saying ‘Ey Ho’, and that’s the way they want to be talked to; the fish want to be appreciated.” Even if you don’t believe that the salmon can hear us, engaging with salmon with respect and acknowledging their presence and power is a practice we could all gain from. Whether you consider it a prayer or conservation ethic–Dr. Langdon calls it “relational sustainability–the practice of engagement represents a form of knowledge, a language even, that scientific communities ignore at their peril. 


THE WISDOM OF PLACE

There is much to learn from a place-based knowledge system rather than a one-size-fits-all mode of thinking. Indigenous communities have coexisted with wild salmon and sustained that relationship for thousands of years. Understanding and honoring that relationship seems a necessary place to start if we hope to build a future where wild salmon, and the communities who depend on them, can thrive.

The Tlingit people forged a system of knowledge tailored to the environment throughout Southeast Alaska. In the area around modern-day Klawock, Alaska, Tlingit technology remains embedded in the land and alive in the people. In a 2002 interview, Klawock Tlingit elder Theodore Roberts inspected the remnants of an intertidal stone fishing trap site that he used as a child in 1929. “It was so plentiful,” Roberts said. As a child, his task was to throw stones into the water to scare the salmon toward the shore so they would be trapped in the structure. “Each family used to dry 400 dog [keta] salmon,” Roberts said. “They lived on them—potatoes and dried fish.”

Researchers have dated some of the wooden and stone fish traps used by the Klawock Tlingit as over 2,300 years old. Both the intertidal stone traps and the wooden, V-shaped traps on the Klawock River demonstrate a profound understanding of wild salmon behavior. The semicircular stone walls built by the Tlingit permitted salmon to swim over the structures at high tide, but trapped them when the tide fell, allowing the Tlingit to easily harvest fish. 


 

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 extinguished indigenous subsistence practices and reorganized Indigenous communities into for-profit corporations who had to compete for resources and land on the open market. This provided some control through land ownership, but millions of acres were sold to developers, allowing the creation of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the beginning of the oil boom in Alaska.

Dr. Langdon has shared his insights with a new generation of indigenous leaders who blend local knowledge with modern science. Shawaan Jackson-Gamble is a Tlingit youth leader restoring wild salmon habitat near his home of Kake, about 50 miles east of Sitka. “We put rocks in streams to create artificial dams,” Jackson-Gamble says. This form of “streamscaping” increases the “pool to ripple ratio” essential for healthy salmon habitat damaged from years of extractive timber harvesting. “My grandpa said it best, we are massaging our land from the damage done from logging.”


Shawwan Jackson-Gamble enjoys the view of Frederick Sound from the north end of Kupreanof Island. Photo by Talia Davis.

These pools, or “ish” in Tlingit, are so essential to healthy salmon spawning runs that Tlingit communities create them with small dams to enrich existing habitat. A stream, Dr. Langdon reminds me, offers a different habitat for salmon than, say, the shoreline. Tlingit engagement with salmon created a profound sense of connection between place, salmon behavior, and opportunities for communities to calibrate the two.

Dr. Langdon wishes scientists and policy makers would respect and learn from the Tlingit and other indigenous knowledge systems. The U.S. government outlawed Tlingit salmon traps on the Klawock River in 1889. “Direct engagement can only really come by delegating to locals, and particularly where capable, indigenous capacities,” Dr. Langdon says. “Salmon biologists used to go on streams and make counts. Now they fly over.”

SALMON BEYOND BORDERS

Salmon behavior requires place-based wisdom, but wild migrations also stitch together diverse marine and terrestrial habitats that challenge us to adopt a wider lens when fish cross international boundaries. Heather Evoy, the indigenous engagement lead with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC), has experienced the challenge of illustrating how far off habitat matters to folks who are sometimes, literally, downstream.

“Working on transboundary issues has been challenging in my community because there’s an attitude of ‘out of sight, out of mind,’” Evoy says. “People hardly follow their own local politics let alone [Washington] D.C. politics,” she tells me with a sense of frustration. “I hate that I have to put people and salmon and water into this political pawn game that varies with each administration.”

Despite the setbacks, Evoy knows the fight is necessary. “Salmon connect us. They are in our DNA, you know, it’s a part of who we are,” she says. Evoy’s message of connection was born out of tragedy. On August 4, 2014, a tailings pond at the Mount Polley mine in British Columbia failed, spilling an estimated 6 billion gallons of toxic waste into Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek, and Quesnel Lake, home to the second largest run of sockeye salmon on the Fraser River.

The Mount Polley Mine tailings pond breach threatened critical salmon habitat. Photo by Farhan Umedaly, Vovo Productions.

"I was able to go to the Mount Polley mine, to ground zero, a few years back,” Evoy tells me. “I was not emotionally or mentally prepared for how being in that space was going to impact me,” Evoy says as she summons the memory. “It was incredibly devastating. I just had this tremendous sorrow. I couldn't stop crying.”

Although the Mount Polley mine is 1,000 kilometers from Southeast Alaska, bearing witness to the destruction of a faraway habitat gave Evoy the perspective necessary to overcome political divisions back home. “The experience helped me to have that connection, that tool in my toolbox, to explain to members of my community—regardless of their political background—that they all like clean water because they all fish for salmon.”


(RE)ENGAGEMENT

Since time immemorial, salmon have stitched together terrestrial and marine ecosystems, fed human communities, and provided a livelihood for generations of fishermen. They also have the potential to knit together our torn political fabric by building consensus for universal values like clean water and good food. The fish cannot accomplish this feat on their own. Our power to manipulate the environment has grown to such a scale as to remake entire watersheds and threaten vital spawning habitat.

Alternative seafood networks, like Sitka Salmon Shares, seek to create markets for wild fish in order to reward the hard work of our fishermen, processors, and staff. A strong market for wild seafood helps defend the habitat necessary for the fish to return next year and every year in perpetuity. We divert 1% of our revenue, not just profits, into our 1% For the Wild fund to promote education about the environment and communities of Southeast Alaska and to support organizations who want a future filled with wild seafood available to all.

Non-profits such as SEACC and Salmon Beyond Borders are organizing fishermen, Indigenous communities, and environmentalists through education and advocacy. As Heather Evoy knows all too well, you can’t care about a place if you don’t know it exists. The same lesson applies to our relationships with the natural world. Dr. Steve Langdon reminds us that a different, older orientation is built on engagement with the natural world. Indigenous communities throughout the Pacific organized their economy, culture, and technology in order to share the forest, rivers, and ocean with wild salmon and learn from their behavior. Likewise, fishermen like Jeff Farvour learn new lessons from fish each season. The salmon have been telling us their story for a very long time. Are we still listening? 

Regardless of how you answer that question, take solace in the knowledge that salmon don’t need to build consensus, they don’t have to balance the tradeoffs of the modern economy, or struggle to educate their children about an increasingly complex world. So long as they have clean waters and intact habitat, wild salmon will do what they have done for millions of years: bridge the divide between the land and sea. We would do well to learn from their example, to reconnect with one another to protect the sources of life we all depend on.

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