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The Salmon Project: The complete series

Nancy Lord
There’s no question that Alaskans' lives are intimately entwined with the cycles of salmon. This series of essays 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

As I write this, just hours after feasting on white king salmon caught just hours before that in the Kachemak Bay winter king fishery, I can’t help but be counting 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 in the world, 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 for the future. 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.

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 produced 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.

  1. 1 The Salmon Project: Salmon Invictus

    In August of 2013, I was staked out on a river on an island in Southeast Alaska, waiting for a brown bear to come into camera range. 

  2. 2 The Salmon Project: The Story Continues

    "Salmon are the story of both my birth family and the family I’ve made. They are incentive for living a life that is materially simpler and raising children with an ecological conscience."

  3. 3 The Salmon Project: Iqalugruaq, chum salmon and the Inuit world

    "By Bristol Bay and Yukon salmon run standards, the Kotzebue chum run is rather small. But in the lives of the people, it is very significant."

  4. 4 Photos: The Salmon Project, winter kings

    "The importance of salmon in our household cannot be overstated: We eat salmon at least two times a week. The act of catching and processing our own meat and fish has become a part of our lifestyle that we realize we can never give up."

  5. 5 The Salmon Project: I am now the age she was

    "My grandmother was happy with any kind of fish we brought. She made soup with the heads. I am now the age she was then. And I think fish mean to me now more of what they meant to her then, when she took out her knives and, probably, thought of home."

  6. 6 The Salmon Project: Thank you, Swimmer

    "The truth is, I’m enchanted with salmon, and with those who fish for them. I especially want to celebrate the number of women I know running their own boats and working on deck. These are the women who inspire me."

  7. 7 The Salmon Project: Salmon are worth more than money

    If the only reason to save wild salmon is because of its economic value, then the battle is probably lost. But I don’t think money is the reason to save salmon runs, or ever was.

  8. 8 The Salmon Project: King of Fish

    When it comes to managing salmon resources, what question should Alaskans be asking themselves?

  9. 9 The Salmon Project: Seasons

    In the part of the world that is Lingit Aani -- Southeast Alaska -- the histories and the futures of the people and the salmon are woven together.

  10. 10 The Salmon Project: Size matters

    Thirty-pounders used to be a twice-a-day occurrence. We’d catch several 40-pounders per week, and see a handful of 50-pound-plus fish in the course of the season. We haven’t seen a 50-pound king in 10 years.

  11. 11 The Salmon Project: Riversong

    In the evenings, after the dishes were done, within the thick yellow glow of a kerosene lantern, we planned our new lives and our new lodge. We’d call it “Riversong” after a line from a Van Morrison song.

  12. 12 The Salmon Project: Youth of Bristol Bay doing their part to protect their fishery

    "I feel like I would not be able to live with myself if I wasn't involved for the protection of our salmon. I know that is how many of my peers feel. As a result, the younger generations of Bristol Bay have become activists."

  13. 13 Photos: The Salmon Project, Kobuk River

    The erosion apparent along the banks of the Kobuk River has a twofold impact on the five communities that depend on their local fisheries.

  14. 14 The Salmon Project: Fishing partners

    Because of the perceived abundance of Alaska's salmon and the large catches allowed, I think that I need more of them than I do. It is one of the things that erode the common respect most of us have for what these creatures really are.