Let’s play a game. How about Word Association? I’ll say a word and you come up with a word or phrase it makes you think of. First thing that pops into your head. OK? Ready? Here goes…
You probably (bear with me here) came up with “fish” or maybe “leap” or more likely “flaccid piece of pale pink something in a polysterene tray from Tesco, but it’s full of omega 3 therefore healthy and I feel virtuous”. Amirite?
Of course I am, that’s what salmon means in the UK. Well, not in Alaska it doesn’t, and particularly not in Ketchikan, the Salmon Capital of the World. Salmon in Alaska is a way of life. Getting the ferry up, in the middle of day 2 I started seeing ripples in the water and got all excited (it was 38 hours on a boat, didn’t take much), wondering what mighty sea creature could be causing this. Before I long I caught sight of the culprit, none other than a large salmon leaping a good two feet out of the water, a quick shimmy and splashing back in to the water. I watched for a while and time and again I saw fish doing this. Sometimes just the once, other times clearly the same fish jumping out of the water 3 or 4 times in quick succession. I thought it was fantastic and very novel.
I’ve since realised that salmon do this all the time, particularly in the summer just prior to their spawning run, and I’ve grown very blasé about it. Whenever there is a bit of sea here, salmon are jumping out of it. It’s very cool. I’ve heard three theories as to why they do it, first they’re catching insects. Second it’s in their blood, it’s how they get upstream and they’re just practicing. Thirdly, it’s only females and they do it to force their eggs nearer to the business end so it’s easier for laying. One & three came from non-Alaskans I met on the ferry and the second one was my cousin, so I’m going with the local knowledge.
I don’t eat a lot of fish, I know I should eat more, but the fact is I don’t really like it that much. Plus I remember reading an article once where it pointed out that some vegetarians like to take the moral ground about not eating meat, saying it is immoral, all the while eating fish, which is taken from the wild rather than farmed. The author made the point that if all the cows in the world disappeared, no natural ecosystem would suffer, finish off one species of fish and it’s a different matter entirely. Countless other species would suffer.
If salmon were the species wiped out, then not only would a few summer barbeques suffer. Salmon not only feed us, but at the various stages of their life they also feed bears, eagles, otters and many larger fish to name but a few. They are born and grow in a stream, spend 1-5 years in the ocean and then return to the same stream (nobody knows how they find it) to spawn and die. Once spawned, their decaying bodies in the thousands of streams and lakes provide nutrients to the soil which improves the berries growing nearby, which feed birds, deer and bears (again). It’s an amazing, finely balanced, well established cycle of life and death.
Until the human race comes along of course. Alaska prides itself on having a sustainable salmon population. Fishing and bycatch is well-monitored and blackouts can be (and are) declared if returning salmon numbers are low. The state runs hatcheries to increase the numbers of young salmon entering the streams, fish ladders are installed to allow returning fish to bypass hydroelectric installations. Which is just as well, seeing as even given all that Alaska takes 175,000,000 salmon out of the sea each year. That’s 175 million legal fish, not counting the untold numbers caught by illegal Chinese, Russian and Japanese boats. Overall is does seem to be a healthy system and the the Alaskans seem to have understood that we can’t just take as many fish out of the sea as want, without disaster, not least the collapse of the fishing industry.