Each year salmon return in the millions to rivers and streams in Alaska. In a way it is, like the wildebeest migration in Africa, a great biological machine that moves nutrients around the ocean and returns to enrich the streams where it all began. The salmon start as fry in the rivers, go to sea, eat, and some are eaten, providing nourishment to sea lions, killer whales, and humans. They return to their rivers to spawn and die and in the process feed bears, eagles and sea birds. Bears take the carcasses into the woods to eat and leave bones and other parts to fertilize the forest floor. New salmon hatch, feeding on organisms that have been nourished by the bodies of their parents, and start the process again.
These fish are pinks, or humpback salmon. The return this year was not as strong as last year. Last year the pinks harvested by commercial fishermen numbered 219 million fish. This year it looks like the harvest will be just over 88 million. But from our perches on bridges over Indian River and Starigaven Creek it still looks like a lot of fish. The pictures start with the first few fish who made it into Indian River, next you see great masses of fish waiting for high tide so they can get up Starigaven Creek. As the tide rises sea lions come in and it is a race to see if the fish can make it into the creek (and waiting bears) before the sea lions can get to them. At the mouths of the rivers hatchery’s seiners wait to catch some of the fish to harvest both their bodies and the roe sacks that will make caviar for export to Russia, Japan and luxury markets around the world.
The cycle of salmon also feeds the economic cycle that keeps Sitka going, as money made by fishermen and processors circulates around the town supporting guys like me.
The writer and anthropologist Richard Nelson and I stood on the Indian River footbridge marveling at the migrations. We have each lived here for more than 30 years and, yet, every chance we get we both go out to see the fish. It is a natural cycle that we never tire of watching.