I am new to Alaska, a recent transplant from the high desert of Utah. The past 18 months that I’ve called this place home have taught me so much about place, community, tradition, and connection. My ties to my family, the alpine forests, the red rock desert, and my once-small-town community are strong. But, being in this oh-so foreign land has forced me to look with a fresh perspective at what it means to be part of a community. I’ve learned what it means to be an outsider and what the land has to teach.
Everything is connected
One of the first connections I felt after moving to Alaska was that between land and sea — more specifically, the vital role salmon plays in the lives of Alaskans. Salmon are the lifeblood of many who live in Southcentral Alaska. Salmon is a way of life, not just a source of food.
I learned about the thousands of rivers, streams, and lakes covering the Kenai Peninsula which are home to baby salmon. In these waters, adult salmon return from the ocean to spawn and die, creating the next generation. I learned that these “nursery” streams need a balance of nutrients, cold water in the summer and warm water in the winter, and protection from predators and human development. If this land is disturbed in a way that impacts the salmon stream, the cycle is disrupted and the future of salmon becomes uncertain.
I have just begun to understand the nuances and intricacies of how salmon and people are connected here. From commercial fishing in Bristol Bay to the subsistence and cultural significance of salmon to Alaskan Native Peoples since time immemorial, the well being of salmon is the well being of Alaskans.
When I moved here, my neighbors brought us an entire bag of salmon they caught. When I met friends, I learned that they leave for nine weeks in the summer to salmon fish. I got a crash course in setnetting for salmon in Cook Inlet. I have been amazed by the intricate and beautiful salmon bone tunics and salmon skin wallets made by local artists.
Big questions that need answers
What do we do with the knowledge that the Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery harvest was 44% less than the recent 10-year average annual harvest? What should we interpret from the fact that the Kenai River was closed to king salmon fishing in June last year? What are we to learn and what are we to do about our other struggling salmon populations?
I am trying to first listen to those who have lived here in harmony with salmon far longer than I have. What I am hearing is that there is still time to take action to protect salmon and, even though we are dealing with complicated systems of landownership, government regulations, politics, and conflicting interests, there are actually some impactful ways we can protect what salmon need to survive.
I am lucky enough to work for a nonprofit organization that has been working with willing landowners to protect land for 33 years now, Kachemak Heritage Land Trust (KHLT). And, as I’ve learned, salmon need land, too. All those nursery streams and the freshwater rivers are connected to and impacted by surrounding land. One goal of KHLT is protecting that land.
Through conservation easements and donations of land, KHLT becomes the caretaker of that land. Once land is under the care of KHLT, it is protected in perpetuity. We can keep those nursery streams undisturbed, headwaters protected, and fisheries healthy and open to the public. We can also prevent development that would hurt the well being of salmon, and therefore, our communities.
Many issues we face today are complicated, contentious, and confusing. I take hope when there are issues on which we can all connect with ways we can actually make an impact. Fish need land too. And baby salmon live in some rather unsuspecting places, sometimes right in our own backyards.
I think it’s safe to say that the well being of salmon and Alaskans goes hand-in-hand. There are so many nonprofits working to protect salmon in the ocean, in rivers, and “on land.” I encourage everyone to learn about how to get involved in protecting salmon through one of the many hardworking organizations and communities who are already doing the work.
Next time you are exploring in your neighborhood, check out the culvert down the road, or the stream in your backyard to see if you can find baby salmon growing up.