email a friend iconprinter friendly iconKamchatka Salmon
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Then again, it might also be said: You can't understand the status and prospects of Oncorhynchus on Earth without considering Kamchatka, the secret outback where at least 20 percent of all wild Pacific salmon go to spawn.

Although larger than California, the peninsula has less than 200 miles of paved roads. The capital is Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, on the southeastern coast, containing half the total population. Across a nicely protective bay sits the Rybachiy Nuclear Submarine Base, Russia's largest, in support of which the city grew during Soviet times, when the entire peninsula was a closed military region. Travel to most other parts of Kamchatka is still difficult for anyone who doesn't have access to an Mi-8 helicopter. But there is a modest network of gravel roads, and one of those winds upstream along a narrow waterway called the Bystraya River, amid the southern Central Range, to the Malki salmon hatchery, a complex of low buildings surrounded by trees.

Hatchery operations began in Kamchatka in 1914, during the twilight of the tsars, but this facility was established just three decades ago. In a lounge room off the entryway, someone hung a poster, declaring in Russian: "Kamchatka was created by nature as if for the very reproduction of salmon." That sounds almost like a myth of origins, but the poster listed some nonmythic contributing factors: Permafrost is largely absent, rain is abundant, drainage is good and steady, and because of Kamchatka's isolation from mainland river systems, its streams are relatively depauperate of other freshwater fish, leaving Oncorhynchus species to face few competitors and predators. The poster was right. Judged on physical and ecological grounds, it's salmon heaven.

Unfortunately, those aren't the only factors that apply. Kamchatka's tottering post-Soviet economy, fisheries-management decisions (and the politics behind them), and how those decisions are enforced will determine the fate of Kamchatka's salmon runs, driving them toward a future that lies somewhere between two extremes. Within a relatively short time, maybe ten years or twenty, the phrase "Kamchatka salmon" could represent a byword for good resource governance and a green brand, reflecting the greatest success story in the history of fisheries management. Or that phrase could memorialize the saddest and most unnecessarily squandered conservation opportunity of the early 21st century. Think: American alligator. Or think: passenger pigeon. At present, the situation is fluid.

Life is hard enough for a salmon, even without politics and economics. Consider the 1.2 million fry released each spring from the Malki hatchery. Roughly five inches long after their first months of growth, they face no easy path from infancy to adulthood. What they face, rather, is a high likelihood of early death. For starters, the hatchery lies about a hundred miles (as a fish swims) from the sea. Each little salmon must descend the Bystraya River to its confluence with a larger river, the Bolshaya. Eluding all manner of freshwater perils on the Bolshaya, it must gradually metamorphose into a different sort of fish, a smolt, capable of making the transition to life in salt water. From the mouth of the Bolshaya, on Kamchatka's west coast, it must enter the bigger world of the Sea of Okhotsk, a frigid but nourishing body of water between the peninsula and mainland Russia.

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