The Salmon Project: A series introduction

Nancy Lord
There’s no question that Alaskans' lives are intimately entwined with the cycles of salmon. This series of essays from The Salmon Project explores the deep and personal relationships we have with salmon, in hopes of strengthening those relationships and encouraging discussion about the future of salmon and their people. Aaron Jansen illustration

(First of 15 parts)

As I write this, hours after feasting on white king salmon caught just hours before in the Kachemak Bay winter king fishery, I can’t help but count the ways in which I love salmon. My partner and I, savoring that broiled fish with a touch of soy sauce, exclaimed again and again at just how rich, oily, sweet, incredibly good-tasting our meal was. “There’s nothing better,” we swore, and there isn’t. If, at the end of our lives, either one of us is granted a last taste of anything, our choices will be, without hesitation, fresh king salmon.

Every bite of salmon reminds me of so many other ways in which I love salmon. Salmon gave me my first Alaska jobs -- in a seafood shop and then a processing plant. Then for parts of two years I worked at a salmon hatchery, loving those pink salmon through the whole process from adult capture to fry release, loving the work and the friendships forged in a magical world of lagoon and stream and forest. After that, Ken and I spent summers setnetting, loving each salmon into the skiff, remarking at their individual shining beauty and at the whole sea- and beach-bound life we were fortunate to live. Our beach neighbor’s first gift to us was strips of smoked salmon; ever after, we filled our smokehouse with the same treasure to eat and share.

In recent years I’ve watched bears fish at the McNeil River Falls, watched belugas fish in Cook Inlet, showed tourists streams full of salmon from Sitka to Nome. Today I’m incredibly grateful when a friend arrives with winter king from the bay. How connected we all are, fish and non-fish, here, there, and everywhere around the state.

Most Alaskans have their own stories of salmon love. There’s no question that our lives are intimately entwined and that we place a high value on being able to live with salmon -- as food, as a source of income, as a basis for outdoor experience and friendships, for the connections salmon give us to the places we love and care for and the families we are.

The Salmon Project has been exploring the deep and personal relationships Alaskans have with salmon, in hopes of strengthening those relationships and encouraging discussion about the future of salmon and salmon people. As part of this, the Project has commissioned essays by 15 Alaskans who were asked to share some of their thoughts about the value of salmon in their lives and communities and Alaskans’ preparedness to steward salmon into the future. For the next 14 days their contributions will be posted here at Alaska Dispatch. It’s been my honor to act as editor of the series.

For a start, here’s a question: We know what we want and need from salmon, but what do salmon need from us? And how can we provide that, when everyone before us has failed, despite knowing what needed to be done to assure salmon for the future. By everyone, I mean people from Europe, the Atlantic coast of New England and Canada, and California and the Pacific Northwest. One after another, each of those parts of the world traded away salmon for other values. No one decided to make that bargain, but in each case, salmon habitat was disrupted and destroyed and salmon were overfished.

We like to think we can do better in Alaska. After all, we have all that past experience to learn from. And a state constitution that insists on sustainable management for the good of all Alaskans. We like to think that there’s not an either/or choice, that we can have economic development and modern lives -- and still have salmon. We know what salmon need. Most of it is habitat, habitat, habitat. And responsible, conservative management that gets enough salmon past the nets and the hooks and the bears to lay the eggs that will hatch to the next fry and smolt that go to sea.

While the individual voices in the coming series are incredibly diverse, I think you’ll find certain themes. The personal connection forged as and with children. An awareness of history and a sense of loss. Respect. A questioning of present approaches and trends. Concern about what the future may bring, including environmental change that may be beyond our individual and even collective ability to control. A fierce commitment to stewardship.

Here’s a teaser of what’s to come:

Lynn Schooler and a bear-bitten salmon
Sara Loewen and little boys with wet feet
Willie Hensley recounting the place of chum salmon in Iñupiat life
Jim Lavrakas with a photo essay about winter kings
Dan O’Neill’s family legacy
Emma Teal Laukitis’s embrace
Charles Wohlforth with questions about money and property
Pat Race with an illustration of the king of fish
Ernestine Hayes with a long view
Charlie Campbell with a radical proposal
Kirsten Dixon remembering when (and a recipe)
Verner Wilson and the youth movement
Oscar Avellaneda-Cruz and the Kobuk River
Michael Dinkel’s experiment with “enough”

We invite you to read, comment, consider your own relationships to salmon, and carry on the conversation.

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska Writer Laureate. She fished commercially for salmon for many years and is the author of "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," "Green Alaska," and other books.

The Salmon Voices Series is supported by The Salmon Project, an experiment in telling and hearing the stories of Alaskans and our salmon. The project hopes to highlight and deepen Alaskans' strong personal relationships with salmon as food, a source of income, and a way of life. Support for the project is provided by the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.