I thought of home and the time 33 years ago when my father took our family to watch the Indians catch salmon for the last time at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, before it was flooded by The Dalles Dam. The men strained to net huge shiny salmon out of the river. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had smoked a peace pipe here with the Indians and admired their catch 150 years before; then, as on Sakhalin, the fish came so fast and thick the people could harvest only a fraction of them.
My guide, Valery Efanov of the Pacific Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography, told me this salmon run was the biggest in 115 years. “We can’t harvest them all.”
As he spoke, I watched the salmon pushing upstream to a point where a net blocked the river, too warm for the fish due to a drought. Thwarted, they turned back, milled about, and tried again and again. A few rolled up onto the sand with their mouths open, gills heaving, exhausted, pointing home. “We’ll open the river tonight, when it is cooler,” said Dr. Efanov. His daughter Nastij leaned over and gently pushed a few back into the water.
Before the first people are supposed to have crossed over the Bering land bridge, the huge salmon runs sustained ancient tribes all along the Pacific coast of Siberia. At Ushki, a dig located on the Kamchatka Peninsula, archaeologists have unearthed salmon bones among the remains of communal living sites 11,000 years old.
What led the scientists to look for salmon bones at Ushki?
“There was a spawning ground there then,” said Nikolai N. Dikov, an archaeologist with the Soviet Academy of Sciences, “and there is a spawning ground there now.” The ancients may have gathered at the Ushki site to ask the gods for a plentiful run.
“Early people crossed the land bridge,” Dr. Dikov stated, stroking his small white goatee. “We are working to define the exact time and pathway. Hunger drove Paleolithic people to migrate, following the bison and the mammoth. When those land mammals were gone, Neolithic groups moved down along the water hunting the giant sea mammals, whales and walrus, and eating salmon.”
Nobody eats as much Pacific salmon as the Japanese, who consume the fish raw, pickled, baked, salted, fried, souped, pasted, and smoked. They eat salmon livers, salmon milt, and salmon skulls, and they process the fish into burgers and sausage. They eat 300,000 tons of the fish each year, a third of the world's total catch. The center of it all is Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, the largest on earth.
Long before sunrise the market is buzzing. Hundreds of men and women rush around between stalls, shout orders at one another, slice fish, work the telephones, and joke under bright strings of lights that shine on acres of iced-down fish steaks, shark fillets, and thick red slabs of tuna stacked like wood. The concrete floors are newly washed and swept. The whole place smells fresh, like the sea.