In the middle of Rosario Strait, as we paddle our kayak away from the calm waters of Bellingham Bay, I turn in alarm at the sound of a huge splash next to my boat. An enormous sea lion crashes into the water. He does it again and again, seemingly cavorting in and out of the waves. And then I notice the silvery salmon flopping on either side of his cavernous mouth. He stays near our boat for at least ten minutes, catching salmon as quickly and efficiently as a gillnetter. My husband and I are quite sure he is taunting us, since in the rush of packing we neglected to bring fishing rods on this adventure.
On this calm, sunny day, I’m in no particular rush, and our camp is only a few miles away, so I pause and enjoy my communion with the sea lion and the salmon. Here in the Pacific Northwest, it’s hard to understate the role of salmon—it’s in our hearts and souls. But as this sea lion illustrates, salmon are also a key link to so many things we hold dear in this ecosystem, from giant cedar trees to brown bears and orcas.I grew up in Connecticut, where salmon runs are such a distant memory that they are no longer a part of the identity of the place or the people. I’ve now lived the majority of my life in places where salmon are the living, breathing soul of our existence, and a common thread for our lives. In Alaska, my husband and I caught our yearly supply of salmon with dip nets, roped into cliffs on the Copper River. Countless friends make their living commercial fishing for these silvery morsels and Alaska Native friends depend on salmon for food security, but also as a key component of a rich, enduring culture. And almost everyone I know in Alaska depends on salmon as a tasty, nutritious source of food to get through the winter and to remind us of the summery days to come.
In Alaska, salmon are everywhere, and until recently they’ve been abundant in most places thanks to undammed rivers and relatively pristine habitat. This wasn’t always the case. The sustainability of salmon runs and salmon fishing was a key issue in the debate for Alaska statehood, and in recent years many salmon runs have taken a downturn. But living in Alaska, it is easy to take them for granted.
Living in Washington State for the last ten years, the importance and fragility of these magnificent creatures is even more apparent. Habitat loss, pollution and dams have taken a heavy toll on our salmon runs and many salmon runs are struggling to survive. If anything, this makes their importance—to us, as salmon people, and to the environment—even more obvious. As one of my favorite Pacific Northwest authors, David Janes Duncan, said, “A ‘modern Northwest’ that cannot support salmon is unlikely to support ‘modern Northwesterners’ for long.”
So today, please join me in celebrating the heart and soul of the Pacific Northwest, our wild salmon—this silvery connector of fresh and saltwater ecosystems, on which I, the taunting sea lion, the orcas and our environment depend.