Stronghold: One Man’s Quest to Save the World’s Wild Salmon
By Tucker Malarkey. Speigel & Grau, 2019. 344 pages. $28.
Salmon strongholds have in recent years been advanced around the North Pacific as conservation strategies to protect watersheds that are home to healthy wild salmon populations and the larger ecosystems they support. Protecting and maintaining the rivers and wetlands on which salmon depend — where that is still possible — is a much sounder strategy than trying to restore destroyed habitat and endangered fish. In Alaska, we’re fortunate to still have free-flowing rivers and the salmon that support our households and economy, although protections vary and do not encompass entire watersheds.
“Stronghold” is the engrossing, well-told story of one man, Guido Rahr, responsible for initiating and advancing the stronghold concept in the North Pacific, particularly on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Beginning with his boyhood adventures at a family fishing cabin on Oregon’s Deschutes River, a tributary to the once-salmon-filled Columbia River, the narrative follows Rahr into his fly-fishing passion and devotion to protecting wild salmon and their wild places.
From an indifferent student more interested in discovering the ways of fish than anything a textbook might teach him, Rahr eventually got serious about what he needed to learn to lead a conservation movement. In grad school at Yale, he wrote “the most inspired paper of his life,” outlining his proposal for salmon strongholds. Starting in 1994 as director of the Wild Salmon Center, based in Portland, Oregon, he worked with fishermen, scientists, donors and others to advance understanding about the importance of protecting salmon habitat and eventually to establish large-scale reserves on major salmon rivers, especially in Russia.
The author is Rahr’s cousin, and she makes clear from the start that she has always been in awe of the boy and man who was like an older brother to her. The portrait she presents is an intimate, familial one, full of admiration and respect for Rahr’s life’s trajectory and his accomplishments.
Rahr threw himself into international waters when he learned of a river in Kamchatka that is home to all six species of salmon — the five we know in Alaska plus the Asian cherry salmon. He got himself invited to Kamchatka in 1993, and learned there not only about the significance of its salmon rivers (“what he believed to be the most miraculous watersheds on earth”) but the tremendous problem of illegal fishing that blocked rivers with nets and stripped fish of their roe. The region was also under threat from logging, gas pipelines, and other forms of resource extraction and human use. Rahr committed himself to working with Russian conservationists and the oligarchs who controlled entire regions of Russia to educate the public and to combat illegal operations, develop a fledgling fly-fishing (catch and release) tourism, and eventually to establish a system of refuges and reserves.
Rahr understood and taught that bears, birds, trees and all the rest depend on the nutrients that salmon bring from the ocean, and that each run of salmon is uniquely adapted to its river. He extended his enthusiasms and concerns to steelhead and taimen, salmon relatives much sought after by sport fishermen. In Russia, he ran into numerous examples of government bureaucracy, suspicion, and outright corruption that would likely have defeated a less committed and resilient person. Rahr, apparently, had a way of charming and convincing others.
Meanwhile, with all the obstacles to conservation work in Russia, one would have thought that Rahr might have given more focus to North America — and particularly to the prodigious salmon rivers of Alaska. While the Wild Salmon Center today has an Anchorage office and works on Alaska issues, “Stronghold” is nearly silent about what Rahr might have thought or done about protecting salmon at home.
Bristol Bay, home to the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, gets a bare three mentions in the book, in passages that total less than four pages. The largest of these, centered on the Pebble mine debate, seems ill-informed about that situation. It reads in part, “In 2005, the Wild Salmon Center joined Alaska Natives to fight a multinational mining interest that was preparing to excavate an enormous vein of copper at the headwaters of Bristol Bay’s most productive salmon rivers.” The author miscategorizes the Pebble fight as one in which “Alaska Natives” were uniformly opposed to the mine. She also, curiously, writes that the issue was “off the radar” for many years, because “the region was considered impenetrable and impervious to threat.” The passage ends with, “The battle would continue to rage in the coming years, and Alaska would join Russia as one of Guido’s greatest preoccupations.”
Readers will hear no more about Alaska until three sentences toward the end announce that “the one great loss was Bristol Bay,” in reference to the failure of the Stand for Salmon ballot initiative.
Perhaps the greatest strength of “Stronghold” is as an adventure story. Numerous gripping narratives tell of Rahr’s undertakings, from fundraising among the world’s billionaires to — more exciting — flying around Russia in questionable helicopters and weather and boating down remote rivers with inadequate equipment and supplies. On one of those Russian river trips, the author joined her cousin to endure multiple harrowing experiences.
All in all, “Stronghold” is a tribute to what one person’s passion, when well directed and with some timely assistance and luck, can achieve in saving some of our earth’s precious places and the life they give us.