There are few images of Alaska as indelible as that of a wild salmon run. A churning river sets the scene as thousands of colorful fish mark their annual migration, powering natural ecosystems and fueling the economic livelihoods of thousands of Alaskans. As a local Alaska chef, I’m well aware of how diners of the world prize Alaska chinook and sockeye salmon for their legendary quality, driving demand that keeps our economy humming. However, this bedrock of our state’s culture, economy and the environment are direly threatened, as salmon increasingly besieged by rising water temperatures are dying off in massive numbers or disappearing altogether. Why this is happening should be no mystery: Our climate is changing, and we’re at the root of it.
In recent decades it’s become a common refrain of nutritionists that salmon is a so-called “superfood,” chock-full of omega-3 fatty acids and touted by many as way to promote heart health. Consumers looking for a healthier alternative to red meat are encouraged to seek out a nutritious, indulgent filet of Alaska salmon as a way of staving off heart attacks. In light of all this, it’s more than a little ironic that the disturbingly high temperatures recently recorded in our state’s waterways are directly contributing to an epidemic of heart attacks among the salmon themselves. Rising water temperatures trigger elevated metabolic rates among the fish, pushing their heart rates to the extremes and prompting the ominous die-offs we’ve recently observed. As if this weren’t enough, the higher temperatures are thought to be behind the higher-than-normal numbers of parasites in the waters, transforming the once-idyllic conditions of our rivers into hostile territory for our state fish.
All of this spells trouble for the thousands of fishing and processing workers who rely upon the annual salmon run in order to get by. Already this year, we know that there will be no salmon catches allowed in the Stikine and Taku rivers as a result of low population forecasts, which is on top of similar forecasts for the year prior. For chefs like me, it means higher prices and a less reliable supply of a once-abundant delicacy for my patrons.
Amid all of this, it’s time to get serious about the fundamental role that human-driven climate change is having on our environment and economic livelihoods. It’s no secret that 2019 has seen devastating heat waves sweep over our state. Last month, thermometers in Anchorage soared to a record 90 degrees, making it the highest temperature ever recorded in the city. A mass of warm water ominously referred to as “the blob” has been wreaking havoc on the North Pacific since 2013, disrupting marine ecosystems and the food systems therein. Perhaps most frightening are the numerous wildfires that have accompanied these heat waves, threatening the many communities lying in their path. It is abundantly clear that our climate is in trouble, and the only way to address it is by transitioning to a 100% clean energy future.
The good news is that we already know how to get there, we just require the political will. Already, thousands of Alaskans work in energy efficiency and renewable energy industries, demonstrating that a clean energy future is an opportunity to be embraced. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has already shown herself to be a solutions-oriented lawmaker who recognizes the dire threat posed by human-driven climate change, but we need action now. If we expect to keep seeing salmon in our rivers and on our plates, we must commit to a 100% clean energy future. Sen. Murkowski, would you come to the table?
David Thorne, aka “Delicious Dave,” has been a local caterer and private chef since 2005, and lived in Alaska since 1978. He specializes in local, seasonal and foraged Alaska menus.
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