Early this spring, we had the opportunity to join a group of young commercial fishermen from the Young Fishermen's Network for an upclose look at one of our local watersheds with the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust. We learned from staff and scientists how our actions on land can help salmon habitat thrive, and how we can be salmon stewards and spokespeople for our local watersheds.
One of our group members, Marissa Wilson, a commercial fisherman who grew up on boats in Cordova and Homer, wrote about our trip upriver:
"Friends are gathering on the beach, watching another short winter day fade to darkness. Huddled together, the thrum of residual storm surf elevating our conversations, we encircle the fire like it’s our nucleus. Acrid smoke beats us out of its erratic path but we, too, continue surging inward. Exposure unites us. Heat draws us in.
Nearby, neighbors are immersed in a similar dance. Some choose to overwinter here, relying not on fire but the constant upwelling of pristine, 45-degree groundwater from aquifers too deep beneath the surface to freeze. These same springs cool their fragile bodies under the swelling heat from Alaska’s saturating summer sunshine, offering cold water stepping stones for migration through warming streams. Wild salmon, in the course of their twenty-million-year history on this earth, have been shaping earth too. Their nutritious bodies have created habitat throughout epochs through the perpetual cycles of predator and prey, decay and fertility.
Salmon are significantly more tenured on this planet than our revolutionary ancestors who freed their hands for specialized tasks by walking on two legs.
They are not novices at the rhythms of this planet. But salmon are new to industry - the way we shape things.
I grew up commercial fishing. That lifestyle was how I came to define what I considered to be limitations, with parameters set by our living planet. It prompted my awareness of our physical and spiritual dependency on nature, focused more of my interest in resource management, and was why I so thoroughly enjoyed a stroll along the frozen banks of the Anchor River with five other fishermen, a biologist, and an employee of the local Land Trust last November.
We slid seasoned Xtra-Tufs across a formidable slick of ice and found ourselves in front of a frost-covered sign boasting Baby Salmon Live Here. Steve Baird, a biologist for the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, seemed to sense our unspoken disconnect: for us, salmon are summer. Daylight is affiliated with good hard work and the smell of chrome-sided flesh sizzling over flames; winter with nostalgia for those exhausting, deeply satisfying days. As we glanced around at thick ice sheets stacked like toppled dominoes and cottonwood trees looking frail in their nakedness, Steve painted the landscape with the language of science.
It’s not hard to accept that salmon need food, and their food needs food. In Alaska, the ultimate contributors are the phosphorus from volcanoes, nitrogen-fixing alders, and peat bogs, plus the intricate waterways that feed the watershed like arteries; iconic things that seem so commonplace they’re almost unremarkable save for the occasional plume of ash. Teams of scientists have been conducting detailed studies on how the nutrients from these features are distributed, as well as how salmon distribute themselves within those systems. The research confirms that salmon thrive in streams with nutrient-dense headwaters lined by alders, and they require upwellings of cold groundwater year-round; increasingly so as humans toil away at the kind of development that has signaled the age of the Anthropocene.
As I warm my body by the beach bonfire months later, I cannot shake my salmon neighbors from my mind. My bipedal friends and I will disperse to vehicles that distort distance and transform our relationship to time, headed home to nooks kept warm by thermostat, surrounded by preserved food. I am haunted by the realization that our concept of modern "survival," fueled by technological advances for the sake of convenience, will not extend to the wild salmon that this fertile landscape simultaneously produces and requires. It makes me question if we truly need anything more nutritious food, nonthreatening temperatures, community, ritual, and the cyclical nature of being. There is resiliency in surrender to connectedness. Baby salmon feel like likely messengers. “You might never expect it,” Steve had prodded us, “it just looks like clumps of grass around us, not at all a place for salmon. But little streams an inch and a half wide can be packed with them. You really should see it.”
And I will. After roe transform and ice thaws, freeing passages for the baby cohos who felt inclined to overwinter, I’ll be joining volunteer groups led by the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust who maintain ongoing scientific studies of salmon habitat around us. We will carefully traverse land strategically purchased for the preservation of cold water refugia in critical salmon habitat, giving reverence to the Ring of Fire, fragrant boreal habitat, and the baby salmon who facilitate - fiercely, as any fisherman can attest to - an intricate life-giving exchange that is millions of years in the making. We are moved, without a doubt, by the gravity and joy of our interconnectedness.
We owe it to our ancestors, who chose to stand tall and scan horizons."
Marissa Wilson works at Cook Inlet Keeper in Homer, Alaska and fishes and tenders in Prince Williams Sound in the summertime. Follow her on instagram at mariss_sea.
Joing Marissa and Salmon Sisters at the Forever Fish Fair, a Pop-up Shop and Community Event designed to bring together Alaskans who share a common love for fish! Learn more here.
Learn more about getting involved in your local watershed here.