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In the Soviet Union, where some citizens still think of salmon as the tsar’s fish, nothing is wasted: Heads go into soup, milt glands into frying pans, roe into jars for red caviar, a delicacy to be savored on holidays and at weddings. The indigenous Ainu people of Japan remember the salmon as “a present brought from heaven,” which fed their forefathers. Across the sea in Alaska even a modest chinook salmon of 15 pounds can bring a wholesale price of $45 —more than twice as much as a barrel of crude oil.

In a good year the whole catch of salmon from the Pacific Rim might amount to 800,000 tons worth five billion dollars, about the gross national product of Panama.

Given the value of these prolific fish, is it any wonder that people have followed their movements for thousands of years, or that the ancient tribes of the Pacific Rim honor them still, or that natives and newcomers fight bitterly over the right to fish for them, or that nations argue over who owns them, or that sportsmen spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to catch them?

Seven species of salmon can be found in the waters of the Pacific. All of them belong to the genus Oncorhynchus, from Latin for the “hooked snout” that describes the upper jaw. The largest is Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, the chinook, or king, salmon, which can weigh as much as 125 pounds. There are also the coho, O. kisutch; the chum, O. keta; the pink, O. gorbuscha; the sockeye, O. nerka; and the cherry, O. masou, an Asian species that seldom ranges beyond the fringes of Japanese and Soviet waters. Scientists of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists added the seventh species in 1989, reclassifying the seagoing steelhead, formerly Salmo gairdneri, as O. mykiss, based on the anatomy, behavior, and DNA structure of the fish. Including all seven species together, there are hundreds of thousands more Pacific salmon than there are Salmo salar, their Atlantic cousin, also an important commercial fish.

Although Pacific salmon travel under a range of local names—tyees, reds, springs, dogs, bluebacks, humpies, to mention a few—all, with the exception of steelhead, follow the same life cycle: They hatch in rivers, travel to the sea, fatten on rich ocean fare, return at maturity to spawn in their natal rivers, and die shortly after spawning. Atlantic salmon and steelhead may live to spawn repeatedly.

Even people who have no interest in catching salmon for fun, profit, or food will gather by the hundreds just to watch their spawning runs. The fish announce the coming of fall and, more than that, the comforting resiliency of nature. Although the wild salmon’s numbers have been greatly diminished by dam construction, logging, pollution, and irrigation schemes, millions of the salmon still arrive with the seasons, pushing up the Columbia and the Skeena, the Sacramento and the Bella Coola, the Yukon and the Amur.

When I arrived on Sakhalin, there were so many fish at the mouth of Ochepukha River it looked as if you could walk across on their backs. People splashed after them with little nets, old wooden crates, even their bare hands. An elderly man in a blue sweater, standing knee-deep in the swift stream, held his hands under the water waiting for the fish to come. He turned to the boy wading next to him and offered a bit of fatherly advice: “Relax, be patient,” he said.

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