Published: July 1990
The Long Journey of the Pacific Salmon
Returning to their birthplaces to spawn and die, Pacific salmon face dangers.
By Jere Van Dyk

This article was originally published in the July 1990 National Geographic.

Captain Yuri Nikolaevich Nevolin drew on a cigarette, then flicked it away into the calm gray Sea of Okhotsk. On the afterdeck of his fishing boat a frayed hammer and sickle fluttered in the August breeze.

“There are not enough boats to get all the fish out of the water,” said Captain Nevolin, looking out through the ragged fog. In front of us, in a setnet, hundreds of glistening black dorsal fins turned on the water's surface. Our net lifted under them, and the hundreds became thousands of trapped salmon, splashing for the last time off the coast of the island of Sakhalin in the Soviet Far East.

A crewman swung a mesh basket under the mass of fish, scooped up 50 or so salmon, and brought them on board. “We can catch a hundred tons in 24 hours,” Captain Nevolin said, shouting to be heard over the drumroll of fish thrashing in our hold. Soon the catch was so great it overflowed the hold in a silver carpet a foot deep. The morning’s catch of ten tons would fetch the equivalent of $60,000. And in the long winter ahead it would supply a canned source of protein and calories in faraway Moscow and Leningrad.

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.

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.

I make the rounds with Atsushi Udo, an independent buyer who supplies fish to a number of companies in the Tokyo area. Udo, a salmon specialist, ushers me to a bin displaying salmon. He runs his hand over a salmon's bright silver skin. “It’s not just the size of the salmon that counts,” he points out, “but the fat in the belly.” He opens the fish and brushes aside the ice to show me. “See, the flesh is fresh and clean, no blood, a nice healthy pink.”

Udo and I hurry to another stall, where he bargains over a stack of frozen chinook, then to another stall, where he pops a salmon egg into his mouth for a taste test. He closes his eyes and nods approval: “Not bad,” he says. He holds another egg to the light, like a ruby. To him the ideal salmon egg is transparent. It melts in your mouth. “It must taste dry. It must have a light delicate flavor. I look for size, firmness, and color. If the eggs are too dark, they haven’t been prepared properly.” Even the container has to be just so, made of fir, not cedar or pine. “If you have the wrong wood, the smell affects the eggs.”

In this nation of fish-eaters a tiny 6-by-13-foot stall at Tsukiji fish market costs more than a million dollars, but stalls seldom go on sale. The high stakes and exacting standards can be punishing, as Atsushi Udo told me: “An independent buyer has to work harder than everyone else. I lost 17 pounds in the first three months of business.” Udo, still lean, finished his breakfast of raw squid, tuna, and salmon, and wiped his hands on a hot towel. “I don’t see my wife and two daughters much. I visit customers on Sundays. I was in Thailand yesterday. I’ll go anywhere.” It was 6:30 a.m. Udo would probably work until 10 p.m.

As Japan’s appetite for salmon grows, the nation is looking to the rest of the world to add to the supply from its own rivers and estuaries. The Japanese fly salmon eggs to hatcheries in Chile, where fry are released into rivers and streams. Between 1983 and 1985 Japan provided 12.6 billion yen’s worth of hatchery equipment to the Soviet Ministry of Fisheries. Near the Soviet city of Magadan, I saw the makings of this venture—new plastic incubation trays for roe, shiny steel pumps, and plastic tubing—gathered under a half-built shelter of wood and concrete. Japan also buys fish from North America and deploys its own commercial fleet of 200 vessels to ply international waters for salmon.

Controversy grows with the demand for salmon. The governments of the United States, Canada, and Japan maintain that every migrating salmon belongs to its country of origin, even beyond the 200-nautical-mile limit set by international agreement. The fishermen of other maritime states, such as Taiwan and South Korea, believe that fish, a gift of nature, belong to everyone.

Some seagoing salmon get snared in drift nets, each set to a depth of 30 feet across 30 miles of ocean. This method—used by Taiwanese, South Korean, and Japanese squid fishermen—picks up most everything that swims by. Many of the experts I talked to said that Japan regulates its squid fleet, that most of the illegal salmon fishing is done by Taiwanese and South Koreans using squid vessels as a cover. As in everything involving salmon, there is hot debate over who is doing what to whom and over the extent to which drift netting damages the salmon fishery.

“We don’t usually know where the illegal fish are actually caught,” said Michael Dahlberg, high-seas salmon expert with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Auke Bay, Alaska. “Most are probably of Asian origin. Alaska had a record catch this year,” Dr. Dahlberg added. Alaskan fishermen did not seem to be suffering—yet.

There is also concern over the long-term impact on other species. Most island states in the South Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand, have banned drift netting in territorial waters. And the United Nations General Assembly recently condemned the practice as indiscriminate and wasteful.

In Tokyo I showed Daishiro Nagahata, a deputy director with the Fisheries Agency of Japan, an angry editorial from the U. S.

“SAY NO TO DRIFT NETS,” read the newspaper headline.

Nagahata studied the clipping and pushed it back across the desk to me. “The Americans consider the high seas a fish sanctuary. Japan considers them common ground, although we respect the country of origin principle.”

In an effort to ease the controversy, Japan closely regulates its fleets and now allows foreign observers aboard some of its drift-net vessels. It has even agreed to equip its ships with radio transponders, which would give a constant fix on their position.

“The biggest argument is that drift netting is a waste,” says Jim Salisbury, a fisheries attache at the U. S. Embassy in Tokyo. “The salmon you get at sea are small. They’ll be almost twice as large when they return, a tremendous resource for the U. S. If the Japanese want salmon, they can buy them from us.”

They do—and they do. Most of the commercial catch from Alaska, the richest salmon grounds in the world, goes to Japan. And because they purchase such great quantities every year, the Japanese set the world price.

To make sure the fish are handled properly and to assure supply, Japan has invested in many salmon canneries and processing plants in Alaska and British Columbia. Japan also sends an army of technicians over to supervise processing the roe Americans once discarded.

“We’d be in a world of hurt without them,” says Harold Thompson, president of Sitka Sound Seafoods, a major processor in southeast Alaska.

There was a hint of winter in the October wind when I set out across Sitka Sound with Gregg Jones, one of 1,700 commercial fishermen licensed to troll for salmon in Alaska. Even though the best part of the season was over, as a favor to me Jones went out fishing that day. He took a sip of hot coffee and pushed a trolling rig out over the water, then went inside to scramble eggs on his marine stove. The sun was just clearing the snow-covered mountains.

“I traded my house and pickup for my first boat,” he reflected, pouring another coffee to ward off the chill. “The woman in my life didn’t like it.” A sleeping bag lay rumpled on his bunk. “It’s like living in a house, only it goes up and down, and there’s a different view every day.”

One of the lines jiggled. Jones hit the hydraulic reel and brought up a shiny chinook of perhaps 15 pounds. He gaffed it on the head, then punctured its ventral aorta. “It’s like cutting the jugular vein of a cow,” he said. After the blood drained out, Jones ran a long knife up its belly and pulled out a herring’s ragged skeleton. “She isn’t ready to spawn yet. She has an immature egg sac. At this weight, I’d say she’s been in the ocean two years.”

He washed her off, making sure no blood remained inside, because that is the first thing that goes bad. He went below, packed the fish on ice, and calculated that it would bring $37.50. He smiled, feeling better now that the first fish was on board. But after ten cold hours it would be his last—the only fish we caught that day.

The big money makes it worth the risk and labor. A salmon troller can earn as much as $70,000 in a good season, and a deckhand can get $10,000—one reason college kids often follow salmon to Alaska. A few good summers and you pay your way through college.

Toward sundown we returned to Sitka under low clouds. A single totem pole was silhouetted against the sky. We ate halibut cheeks that night with some fishermen who brought along a fiddle, two guitars, even a clarinet. When the music stopped, I heard outside the squeal of old rubber tires against the pier, then a gull crying. “The sea is the last place I know where a man can be free,” said Jones.

That night, I knew, the last of the season’s coho were running inland, tasting the familiar waters of the nearby Katlian River for the first time in more than a year at sea. Perhaps by now they held deep in the safety of a pool under the drifting snow. There they would rest for a while, then move upstream again into the silent mountains, traveling on stores of fat and muscle from their sea-feeding years. Spawning salmon stop eating in fresh water, even if their river journey is a thousand miles. Their purpose now is to breed. Each fish finds its way up the river’s main stem—even into the branching, rebranching, and constricting tributaries—to the place where it had hatched.

The fish find their birthplace within a small margin of error, guided by the smell of the home stream and by other means that humans do not yet understand.

When a hen salmon finally gets home, she begins digging a nest in the riverbed, thrashing with her whole body to make a hollow. Two or three males hover nearby, fighting for breeding rights until the nest is finished. The hen, now accompanied by the strongest male, shudders and releases her eggs, dropping them into the nest. Simultaneously, the male shudders too, releasing a milky cloud of sperm to fertilize the eggs. With her tail the female sweeps a protective cover of gravel over the nest, at the same time scooping out another nest for more eggs.

Not long after the spawning is done, both parents die, spent from the process, from the weeks of fasting, from the territorial fights, from the nest building. They become food for eagles and bears. Their decomposed bodies add nutrients to the water, which in time will nourish their progeny.

Then the cycle restarts: From the eggs hatch alevins, translucent fish carrying pouches of food on their bellies, which feed them for weeks. Alevins become fry, fry become smolts, and smolts are salmon headed to sea.

Most never make it home again. If a female lays 3,000 eggs, no more than 300 or so survive as fry; of that 300, no more than four or five reach maturity and fewer still return to spawn. The survivors beat the odds, traveling as much as 10,000 miles in the ocean, eluding predators, fishermen, pollution. Given the natural and man-made perils faced by a salmon, the amazing thing is that any survive at all.

But they do.

When the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in March of 1989, it appeared to doom the salmon that normally mass there before summer spawning. In fact, when the fish returned, fishermen reaped more than 20 million pink salmon, a fourth of the state’s catch. It was one of the biggest seasons since 1878. The long-range effects of the spill remain to be seen. A year later researchers noticed that fewer eggs survived in some areas, and young fish were smaller than normal.

Like other wild creatures that man relies upon for food, the salmon offers constant lessons in humility.

“We’re wrong more than 50 percent of the time,” says Herman Savikko, a biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “We predicted 16.1 million sockeye for Bristol Bay in 1989,” he said. “There were 29.3 million. Once salmon reach the ocean, it’s a black hole. Are the drift nets taking them? Is there increased predation? Warmer current? A cold snap? Mother nature decides.”

To avoid the uncertainties mother nature inflicts on fishermen, people are turning to salmon farming, which now accounts for three out of every ten salmon consumed in the world. Roger Engeset runs such a farm, tucked away in a rocky cove on the coast of British Columbia. There he grows fish the way other farmers grow hogs—in feedlots—except that his lots are fenced by nets and afloat in salt water.

“In 48 hours we can get the salmon from pen to restaurant anywhere in Canada or the U. S.,” says Engeset, standing by one of 16 pens that holds as many as 25,000 salmon. “We don’t hunt pigs any more,” he says, scooping up a handful of salmon feed. “We farm them. It will be the same with salmon.”

He casts a handful of the food pellets into one of the pens, and his salmon swarm to the surface, like pet goldfish at feeding time.

Smolts are dropped in by helicopter, 10,000 to 15,000 per load. Dumped into the pens, the smolts stay there, never going to sea, never joining the hazardous migrations of their wild cousins, never being tested by the rigors of courtship. For as long as 24 months, they live only to eat. When they weigh about five pounds, they are netted for market.

Kept on ice, the fish have a shelf life of three weeks. If you eat salmon that has not been cooked or frozen, you risk ingesting a parasite that can cause discomfort in your digestive tract, although permanent damage is unlikely. Almost all salmon is safe, even good for you.

High in protein, they also contain oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower blood cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease, according to medical research. That makes the fish attractive to consumers and encourages farmers like Engeset and the many corporations now entering the market.

Engeset, a Norwegian, started his company with two employees five years ago. Now he has 60. “In Norway I tried for five years to start a salmon farm, but out of a thousand applications the government accepted 50, so I decided to look elsewhere.” He chose the Canadian coast, an ideal environment, with its clean water and isolated coves. Last year, farms like his produced more chinook salmon in British Columbia than commercial fishermen could provide.

Ron Ginetz, chief of the Pacific aquaculture division in Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans Department, believes that trend will continue:

“By the year 2000 we believe the farm salmon harvest will equal or surpass the commercial catch,” he said. “Farming production costs will fall, and salmon will be available year-round, like chicken.”

What will become of the wild salmon, those that still make their ageless rounds on the Pacific currents? Will they be just another commodity?

“Salmon,” said the professor, “is a food item. Economics most often wins out. The environmentalists will lose.” The speaker was William McNeil, a researcher at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center. We were sitting in an office at Newport discussing the fish’s future.

“The supply of salmon is as robust as it ever has been and is even increasing,” he said.

I didn’t understand.

“The wild stocks are being overfished,” he explained. Pollution and dams also take their toll of wild stocks, but the burgeoning farms and hatcheries more than make up the deficit.

Farms, of course, keep their fish in one place. Hatcheries, operated privately as well as by state and federal governments, release their fish into hundreds of rivers, streams, and saltwater bays, to be caught on returning from sea. That is a boon to sport- and commercial fishermen, but there is a trade-off: If hatchery fish breed with wild stock, which are adapted to one particular river, a genetic resource built up over tens of thousands of years could be weakened.

“We’re very concerned about genetic erosion,” says Peter Paquet, senior fish and wildlife biologist with the Northwest Power Planning Council in Portland, Oregon. “We’re concerned that we could lose unique gene pools,” Dr. Paquet emphasizes. For that reason, smaller hatcheries may be established on more streams in the Pacific Northwest, to protect each watershed's unique strain of fish. “It looks like the offspring of a hatchery fish bred with a wild fish has less chance of surviving,” he says.

Many a sportsman will tell you that hatchery fish don’t fight as hard as wild ones. And many consumers feel that the taste and appearance of a farm fish can't compare with that of its wild brothers—one reason Japanese buyers prefer Alaska’s wild salmon.

How can a species that has endured for thousands of years in wild, open rivers survive in a world of diminishing wilderness? Some can’t.

Wild coho have disappeared from the upper Columbia River. The sockeye are almost gone from the Snake River of Idaho. And in California’s Sacramento River, once a great salmon stream, the winter race of chinook is on the threatened species list, and fisheries specialists believe that the spring run of wild chinook may face the same fate. Many feel that there is not enough water in California to sustain fish, subsidized agriculture, and a human population that grows by 700,000 a year.

Jason Peltier, manager of the Central Valley Project Water Association, explained it this way: “Seventy percent of the rainfall in California is above Sacramento,” he said; “80 percent of the demand for water is below.” To sustain growth in the hot, dry south takes water from the northern salmon country.

“We just want to keep the salmon in water,” said Forrest Reynolds, of the state’s Inland Fisheries Division. “California does not have enough water. One goal,” he added, “is to keep the environment clean for the value salmon provide, over and above fishing. We stress wild salmon for their intrinsic value and for tourism. They are part of the California lifestyle people want to experience.”

To keep salmon, as well as striped bass, coming to the Sacramento River, the state built a 20-million-dollar complex near Byron, where fish are strained out of the river at the Skinner Fish Facility.

“Water from the channel passes through a series of louvers,” said Marvin Niemi, water operations chief at the facility. “That causes the water to ripple, which causes the fish to shy away into bypass pipes.” He ran his hands over one of the metal louvers, which looked like a giant vertical window blind. “We take the salmon out of the bypass pipes, put them into holding tanks, and cart them 25 miles downstream beyond water diversion pipes and closer to the sea.” On a good day in April or May, when chinook are running, the plant handles more than 5,000 a day.

Every spring barges make daily trips down the Snake River to the Columbia with an unlikely cargo—each one carries 250,000 or more chinook smolts from Idaho. When barges are downstream of Bonneville Dam, 140 miles from the sea, the fish are released to make their own way. If the migrating fish had to swim the whole distance, many would die, eaten by predators, slowed by the artificial lakes, or destroyed in the turbines of dams.

Almost 140 million dollars has recently been committed to install and upgrade fish passageways and screens on four of the Columbia system’s dams, so that more fish can get around them. Each spring water is released from the dams to ease migrating fish on their way, at a cost of as much as 70 million dollars a year in lost electrical generating capacity. Many people would happily pay higher rates for the fish’s sake.

“It’s smolts versus volts,” quipped Steve Pettit, a biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. “The power people say our rates will go up a dollar a month to save the salmon. We in the Northwest have to convince the power people that we have to do it, regardless of the cost.”

All along the river, people seem preoccupied with the salmon and its well-being. Lucille Worsham is one of them. From a dark room built into the base of Bonneville Dam, she keeps tabs on salmon traffic. I found her at the counting station, staring through a green window, watching for fish in the swirling green water.

“It doesn’t get boring,” she said. “When the fish are running, all I can do is count, using both hands. Sometimes we get 10,000 chinook a day. I count every one.”

A small silvery male salmon passed, glowing in the light. Worsham hit a key on an adding machine. Then the salmon reappeared, drifting backward, downstream. She hit another key, deleting him. We waited. He came by again. She entered him. That made it eight chinooks for the day, 375,418 for the year.

Everyone along the river seems to count fish. How many did you catch today? How many passed the dam? How many this time last year? The fixation with counting intensified in the 1970s, when U. S. courts ruled that certain Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest were entitled, by treaty, to as much as half the "harvestable" salmon returning to traditional tribal fishing areas each year. Until then, no extensive surveys of salmon populations had taken place, so it was impossible to know exactly how many there were. When the surveys were completed, the scarcity of fish was confirmed. To ensure an adequate supply of fish for the future, regulations limiting the catch were strengthened. State and tribal officials try to allocate the catch fairly among Indians, commercial fishermen, and sportfishermen. To do that, state, federal, and tribal officials analyze data from dams, tagging studies, and previous runs, turning all information over to the Pacific Fishery Management Council. Then the council tries to predict the unpredictable—what next year's run of salmon will be.

“The science gets to be a nightmare,” said David Sones, assistant fisheries director of the Makah Tribal Council, one of the Indian tribes entitled to half of each year's catch.

“We are the first in line for any salmon returning to Puget Sound,” Sones told me, “and we have to deal with 19 other tribes and a gantlet of management zones. Our own fishermen complain that we don't let them fish enough,” he sighed. “Other tribes are always threatening to take us to court. It’s hard to let the salmon go by.”

Although the allocation system has been in effect for more than 15 years, the feelings still run strong.

“The Indians are taking our rights away,” said Scott Watson, a young commercial fisherman I met at the mouth of the Columbia River. “We've got to let the fish go by so they can take their 50 percent. We used to fish year-round. Now it’s two months. It’s maddening.”

Others accept the allocations.

“For a fisherman there’s never enough fish,” declared Jim Suomela, another Columbia fisherman. “The Indians get blamed for the cutbacks.” His father, who had been on shore, climbed on board their boat and spoke up: “The Indians don’t ruin the runs,” he said, looking across the wide river, where it was rainy and sunny at the same time. “They don’t even fish around here.”

Far upstream I met Yakima Indian chief Levi George. His long hair was braided, tied with leather straps. Before the dams came, he used to race beside the river on horseback, chasing salmon at spawning time.

“We have a gentleman’s agreement with the white man now,” he explained. “We won’t fish below Bonneville Dam, and he won’t fish above it. I don't think it’s fair, but we do it. We all have to work together now. If we could bring the salmon back like before, the people would be happy.”

That was it. All along the river and all around the Pacific Rim, it was the same. From Japan to Kamchatka, from Alaska to California, people felt better if they were catching salmon or at least if they had a fair chance of catching salmon. After all these years the fish was still a part of their lives. It was their heritage, a symbol of plenty, of community, of a healthy environment, of hope for the future. As long as the salmon kept coming, you had the feeling that life would be all right.