The Places They Call “Home”

Salmon is our most bountiful wild food source, and we think of them as coming “home” when they return to the streams where we harvest them. But they are at home throughout their range—in the places where they live their seasons of adulthood as well as they gravel where they emerge or the splashing pools where they finally fall away. The challenge of loving the salmon who come home to the place where we wait for them is that we forget about all the parts of their lives that they spend away. They are at home in all those places and they live in all the places throughout their range. We often connect our desire to act—to protect them—to the place where they come “home.” But the home that they need is everywhere where they live.

Baby coho salmon, while still smaller than the size of a pinky finger, spread out over great ranges, sometimes transiting miles or even tens of miles in this juvenile stage. If we imagine them to need only those streams where they have spawned, we miss the enormous complexity of the watery lands that support them. Any Alaskan child who has walked, eyes down, through a forest or field, will have seen these tiny “minnows” flitting about in the shadow of creekside grass, or moving through the dappled light in the rivulet of a stream passing beneath a cottonwood tree. These are the homes of our salmon. These swampy places are no less important than the shallow streambed where we saw the parent generation spawn and die.

We grow frustrated when we attempt to take steps to safeguard our salmon, only to find that our actions in our backyards or in our boroughs or in our watershed don’t seem to be enough. We learn about and focus our efforts on stream bank restoration, for example, but we find that climate change is taking bites out of our fish faster than we can act to restore them. We temper our own harvest, taking only what we need so nothing remains in our freezer at year’s end; but we know that others downstream from us or out in the marine system are harvesting in numbers that surpass our own impact. The feeling of helplessness can be overwhelming. Our individual actions feels insignificant against the 1,000 cuts that strike at our fish.

The salmon is a microcosmic example of our entire global system. Everything in the world around us is spinning faster and faster; our impacts are spiraling out around us. Our desire to rein things in, or to find something sane in the whirl of the storm, feels more and more unattainable, even as we reach for it. 

Our systems are so large, so all-encompassing. Words printed in books of law are meant to encompass the circumstances in a brackish estuary tucked alongside the highway in the Mat-Su, at the same time they are meant to govern the clear-running waters of a snow-fed Kodiak river, or the wide exhale of the Kuskokwim as it drains marsh and grassland and creek for tens of millions of acres of watery land. 

Where do we start amidst all this confusion?

One possible answer, one tiny piece of the puzzle: must reach out and touch our local elected officials. We must ask them to go to their work with our values in mind. These values of family, of land, of the import of the whole system, not just the too-visible places.

Resource Constraint and the Future of Salmon

An important dynamic in Alaska’s salmon system at this time is resource constraint. Alaska’s state budget has been trending steadily downward for a number of years, and state oil revenues and the political climate make it likely that downward pressure will remain. Hundreds of million of dollars in general fund budget cuts occurred in the most recent state budget, with the effect being felt at the level of agencies and their programs—including many that are tied to the use of salmon by the people of Alaska and beyond. These limitations will play out in many arenas, including fishery management, the research that supports that management, and work by the University of Alaska that supports the fishery resource. Smaller but not insignificant programs around outreach, education and use of the resource will also face cuts. 

It’s unlikely that the resource constraints facing Alaska will see a significant course correction any time in the future. The availability of dollars in Alaska is inexorably tied to the amount of oil flowing down the TransAlaska Pipeline. That flow has reliably trended downward since the late 1980s, with small upticks in some recent years. Alaska’s population, meantime, has increased by more than 34% during the same time, meaning that each barrel of oil must cover expenses tied to that many more people. 

At the same time, the research and management regimes that support the harvest of salmon in Alaska have grown, understandably, more and more complex. I say understandably because the instinct to add to the knowledge base is completely consistent with the effort to safeguard the resource. More data points, more fidelity in that data, more places of observation and more robust understanding of the complexities of the fish and their harvest—all of these would seem to point toward better stewardship of the resource. (We could pause and spend some time wondering about the veracity of that thesis, but for now we’ll take the instinct toward greater knowledge to be consistent with more attentive resource stewardship.)

But here’s a truth we are likely to have to face: resources will be fewer than they are today. So what does that mean, when it comes to prioritization and advocacy? Will we advocate for salmon over K-12 education? Will we prejudice renewable resource maintenance over new resource development? Will we do the math correctly when weighing cost and benefit?

And can we learn to manage our salmon with fewer inputs than we have today? What will we relinquish, while still making wise choices in our stewardship?