I had salmon on my mind when I decided to move to Alaska 20 years ago. My boyfriend at the time, who was trying to convince me to migrate north with him, grilled up delicious fillets of wild Alaskan sockeye for me. That deep red flesh lured me out of vegetarianism and to higher latitudes; a month after he packed the back of his old Volvo station wagon and hit the Alaska Highway, I stuffed a backpack and two duffels, hopped on a ferry and headed north to join him. When I arrived in a little community called Ketchikan, pink salmon thronged a creek that ran right through the middle of town. A thousand dorsal fins wriggled out of the water as the fish pressed upstream. I was hooked.
Though that boyfriend and I split, I’ve stayed north ever since. Now, I live in Homer, a small coastal town on a salmon-filled bay, with my husband and two daughters. Since moving here my life has revolved around these fish. I grew up along the tepid, tea-coloured creeks of Maryland that held minnows and crayfish and as a kid I had dropped small hooks into lakes in search of a sunfish or two, but soon after I arrived in Alaska I began fishing for salmon with a salvaged scrap of net in the bay that landed nearly a winter’s worth. Pulling gleaming fish from these murky waters that first time felt magical – and still does. Few things so wondrous in life are as free.
Today, my family and I bend the fleeting summer months – salmon season – around the opportunities to catch enough of them to fill our freezer, timing skiff trips across the bay to coincide with a run of sockeye up a rushing creek, or with the days when the snagging is good in a tidal lagoon nearby. The rest of the year, we pull fillets out of our large, second freezer or pluck jars of canned salmon off the shelf, and eat this fish dozens of different ways – grilled, baked, stir-fried, pickled, smoked, raw, and made into burgers, salad and soup.
I live in a place that’s wedded to salmon. Hundreds of local people in this town of 5,000 are commercial salmon fishermen, scores more fish for themselves or work in an industry tied to salmon. So it makes sense that the local calendar runs on these fish. Schools break up in late May so families can prepare for the salmon season. The ebb and flow of boats from the harbour and local boatyards follow salmon. Tourists do too, thronging into town just as the fish start filling local rivers.
It might be odd that Homer calls itself the “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World” when it’s salmon that truly captures locals’ hearts. Halibut are dun-coloured flatfish; we think of them as meat that swims. Their firm, white flesh is a mild and adaptable ingredient that makes for a good break from salmon. But no one feels a special kinship with halibut. No one gets tattoos of them, either. Go to an end-of-summer potluck here, and not only will you get to enjoy salmon on the grill (and prepared in a dozen other ways), you’ll be served an ample helping of salmon body art as well.
I love that my daughters – aged seven and ten – are growing up in this salmon world. My ten-year-old’s fourth-grade teacher is a commercial salmon fisherman and over the years two of my kids’ favourite babysitters have been commercial fishermen too: kind, strong young women who grew up helping out in their family’s fishing businesses. Maggie is now the captain of her own boat. Isabel, a whiz at running skiffs and picking fish from nets, has recently left the state for college but will, no doubt, come back for salmon season.
My own social world is a web of relationships that have something to do with salmon: Kara, my die-hard salmon-fishing partner, was also at the births of my two children; some days, I’m not sure which experience has been more foundational for our friendship. There’s Rebecca, who is frozen in my mind standing on her paddleboard in a wetsuit, holding up a huge silver salmon she had just hooked while our kids played together in the bay. Christine came up to Alaska to commercial fish and now is a nurse. Jason built a salmon smokehouse last summer in his yard. Meghan is raising her kids on the back deck of her commercial salmon gillnetter.
Salmon play a role in my marriage too. Each summer, when it’s time to smoke and can salmon, my husband and I reminisce about the first batch of fish we put up together, the one before we were married and long before kids, when we were living in a sunny, second-story apartment at the beach. That salmon, we remind each other, was the most beautiful fish we ever prepared. We had cut the fillets into tidy strips, brined and rinsed them before laying the fish on racks on the deck, where an ideal combination of sun and wind made them glisten like bars of ruby and gave them a perfect pellicle, the tacky skin that must form on the fish to seal in moisture before you smoke it. We’ve never managed a pellicle like that since. When we talk about that salmon, we’re speaking in code about the passing of beauty and time, about the ways we long for those carefree days at the beach.
When we’re not talking in code (or discussing marinades versus dry rubs, whether to pinbone or not, or pondering whether to grill, panfry, or bake), when we talk about salmon we’re talking about fish from two different genera: the Atlantic salmon, a single species – Salmo salar, and Pacific salmon, whose genus name is Oncorhynchus and includes six salmon species each with multiple names. There’s king, otherwise known as chinook; silver/coho; red/sockeye; dog/chum; and pink/humpy, as well as the lesser known masu or cherry salmon, which lives along the coast of Asia from Russia to Taiwan.
When we talk about wild salmon, we’re almost always talking about Pacific salmon. True wild Atlantic salmon have all but disappeared. In most of the world, Atlantic salmon is synonymous with farmed salmon – domestic fish reared in pens from Chile to Norway. A popular bumper sticker around here is “Friends don’t let friends eat farmed fish”. We revile them not just because farmed salmon fillets undercut wild Alaska salmon in markets all over the world. Or because the hue of farmed fillets comes not from a natural diet of krill but from a food additive designed to match a desired paint swatch on the “SalmoFan” colour wheel as if picking a new shade for the kitchen walls. We revile the industry because the millions of farmed salmon that have escaped over the years put wild salmon populations at risk from interbreeding, which reduces the fitness of wild fish to survive in the natural environment. And with a recent thumbs-up from the US Food and Drug Administration, “Frankenfish” – farmed Atlantic salmon modified with genes from other species to grow about twice as fast – are headed to American markets, yet another blow to wild salmon.
The thing is, wild salmon are wondrous enough without this technological mangling. The life of a Pacific salmon is full of the stuff of ancient Greek epics: life and death struggles, long journeys and dramatic homecomings. A salmon hatches out of an egg – ranging in size from a lentil to a garden pea and laid in the gravel at the bottom of a stream or lake – as a minute fish still yoked to its yolk sac. Young salmon spend up to four years in freshwater, dining on insects and small crustaceans, and dodging predators such as birds and other fish. Then they hear the siren call of the sea.
At this point, the still tiny fish transform for life in saltwater: they lose their dull colours, turn bright silver, grow teeth and lengthen into a more streamlined form. Travelling thousands of miles at sea, they gorge on plankton, squid and other fish, rapidly increasing their weight up to ten thousandfold.
Sometime between one and seven years later, the real salmon magic begins – the stuff of myth and metaphor. Using an extremely fine-tuned sense of smell and, likely, the earth’s magnetic field, these fish return to the freshwater sites where they were born. Pressing against the current, flinging themselves up waterfalls, the fish journey home, travelling up to 2,000 miles upstream in the process. Most don’t eat during the voyage. Often looking half-dead for the journey, once they arrive home, females dig depressions in the stream or lakebed – called redds – in which to lay thousands of eggs. Males, similarly bedraggled, move in to fertilise. Soon after, the pair dies.
But the epic doesn’t end there. The fish turn rainbow as they rot along the banks of rivers and streams and all sorts of creatures come in to scavenge, from flies to wrens to bears. Salmon bring marine nutrients far inland, nourishing the very habitat on which they depend, fertilising the bankside trees that will eventually topple into rivers, creating deep pools that salmon love and feeding the insect populations that, in turn, are grub for the young fish.
I’ve been fishing for salmon for longer than I’ve been a mother, longer than I’ve been a wife. But it isn’t just my own story that’s tangled up with these fish. The history of the English-speaking world can be told through salmon. Stone Age cave paintings and rock carvings made at the edge of the ice sheet during the peak of glaciation on the European continent reveal a deep connection between people and salmon that is at least 25,000 years old. Romans feasted on them. Medieval farmers used them as fodder for their pigs. Merchants set up commercial markets for pickled salmon as early as the 14th century, and in the late 1700s, an entrepreneurial Scot began sending fresh salmon on river ice to London fishmongers by carriage.
But in Europe, the rise of society meant the fall of salmon. Despite centuries of regulation (even the Magna Carta included laws to protect salmon runs), a pervasive lack of enforcement and increased industrialisation doomed the fish, which were rare enough to be considered a luxury food by the mid-1800s. By 1960, salmon were extinct or nearly so in most of the parts of Europe where they had once thrived. Past proved prologue for salmon along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, where they used to crowd into rivers from New York to Maine.
As Atlantic salmon populations faded, word got out about the enormous runs in the American West, where salmon had sustained Native peoples for countless generations. The fish helped fuel the Gold Rush, providing ready protein to hungry argonauts, but mining decimated watersheds and intensified the demand for logging, which began the demise of these fish. The construction of hydroelectric dams rang the death knell. Today, only about 5% of historic populations of salmon in the western states remain.
In Alaska, we pride ourselves on having a different salmon story. Alaska has more miles of coastline than all of the other states combined and the bulk of our coastal waters are salmon habitat. We think of our state as a place built on salmon. Native peoples have been eating salmon for more than 11,000 years, in many cases living lives that centred on these fish, catching them by net, spear, trap, dart, hook and weir; eating them year-round fresh, dried, smoked and fermented; and making the skin into boots and parkas.
For more than 150 years, people have come from all over the world for Alaska’s salmon. Canneries cropped up along the state’s coastlines as early as 1878, with segregated housing for Italian, Chinese, Scandinavian and, later, Filipino workers. It’s because of these fish that Alaska is one of the United States. When a David and Goliath battle broke out between local salmon fishermen and the Seattle-based companies that had blocked off the rivers with fish traps, local residents fought back, demanding local control and pressing for statehood, which was granted in 1959.
Since then, lack of development – we have only about one person per square mile here – and careful management of fisheries, have kept Alaska’s salmon runs viable, maintaining an industry worth billions of dollars that employs some 30,000 people per year. In Southwestern Alaska’s Bristol Bay, you’ll find the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery where last year more than 56m red salmon returned, a run more than 100 times that of all the wild salmon returning to Norway.
Lately, my husband and I have been hauling our young daughters around the state to help out with friends’ commercial fishing operations. During two consecutive summers, we spent a couple of weeks with my daughter’s teacher and his family on a remote island at their fish camp. The camp consists of a few cabins and sheds, electricity comes from a generator and water from a nearby stream. My kids slept in a tent, cleaned seaweed from the fishing nets, washed dishes and ran around in bare feet. They picked a few salmon from the fishing nets when the conditions were calm enough to take them out in one of the skiffs and my older daughter got a chance to run the outboard. My children beg to go back.
But I worry about whether salmon will be a part of my daughters’ futures. Climate change is warming our streams and rivers here far faster than scientists predicted, and salmon need cold, clean water to survive. Last summer, as wildfire smoke wafted into our town for weeks, numerous rivers in Alaska ran too hot for salmon. One researcher clocked a salmon stream about 250 miles north of Homer at nearly 28 degrees Celsius, a lethal temperature for the fish. And some of Bristol Bay’s tributaries ran too warm as well. Salmon schooled up at the river mouths and wouldn’t budge upstream to spawning grounds. Hundreds of thousands of them washed up along the region’s riverbanks.
Climate change is a likely culprit for why salmon are returning to Alaska’s rivers smaller than in years past. Our oceans are changing too of course – with rising temperatures, increasing blooms of toxic algae, and shifts in the populations of salmon predators and prey. These changes, coupled with the release of unsustainable numbers of hatchery salmon, are also likely the reason why some of our highly prized king salmon runs have crashed.
To add insult to injury, a Canadian company wants to dig one of the world’s largest open-pit mines in the headwaters of Alaska’s prolific Bristol Bay. The Pebble Mine development could be disastrous for the fishery and has hit stiff opposition among Alaskans, especially Native people and fishermen. But the Trump administration plans to sail the project through the government permitting process at an unprecedented clip.
Our state is a jumble of hippies, soldiers, recluses, artists and oil men, but salmon is something we all agree on. We want them in our lives – in our nets, on our lines, in our rivers and on our dinner plates. And more – we want to be able to catch them with our kids. In many ways, salmon define who we are as Alaskans – bolstering the cherished image we have of ourselves as tough, self-reliant people living at the edge of the wilderness. And in a world that is increasingly polarised, salmon remind us to embrace anything that brings us together.
Salmon teach us other lessons too. They force us to recognise that we often ignore evidence staring us in the face. As warming temperatures rapidly change the environment around us, salmon embody our relationship to this imperiled planet. But salmon demand so much from us: that we co-operate, that we compromise, and that we act now, while looking far into the future. These fish force us to ask the hard questions about our lives. What are we willing to sacrifice? What are we willing to lose?
I ate so much salmon when I was pregnant with my daughters that I imagine their bodies formed – in the sea of my uterine waters – out of a reshuffling of salmon atoms. As a toddler, my younger daughter ate raw salmon by the fistful, dunking it in soy sauce and shoving it into her mouth. I cannot imagine my children’s futures untethered from salmon.
Most days, my salmon-related concerns are more mundane: how should I fix it for dinner? As I slide yet another filet into the oven, I think about my first summer dipnetting – catching fish with a long-handled net while standing chest deep in the river. Only Alaska residents are allowed to fish in this way, and it was then that my mania for salmon really took hold.
After feeling the tug of a fish caught in my net, I pulled it out of the water and untangled a bright sockeye from the webbing. I stunned it with a blow to the head with a small wooden bat, ripped its gills to bleed it, then cleaned the fish right on the beach. Using a short, sharp knife, I split the fish from vent to head. Then I reached inside the body for the guts. Two skeins of pink, pearly eggs slid out and a tan, frilly organ that’s part of the digestive tract. I yanked out the rest of the entrails, tethered to the head by the tough, white oesophagus, being careful not to burst the gall bladder, which contains bright green bile. Then I scraped out the blood line, which is actually the fish’s kidney, by running my fingers along the spine.
The heart was the last thing that needed to go, a hunk of pink muscle about the size of a grape, tucked at the base of the head. I pulled it out and realised that it was still beating. Covered in fish slime, I knelt on the sand, the salmon heart shuddering rhythmically against my palm. As gulls whined over gut piles on the beach all around me, that beating heart was a connection to an ancient world – and to the future. I tossed it to the birds and kept fishing.