As the deck of his small boat pitches in the choppy waters off Alaska's Copper River delta, fisherman R.J. Kopchak paws through his net to untangle a lively 40-pound king salmon. He severs one of its gills to deliver the coup de grace, then reels the rest of the net on board to receive the gift of another dozen salmon ensnared in the light-green nylon mesh.
Kopchak's work places him in the sweet spot, where commercial success meets ecological integrity. Thanks to the cachet of the Copper River brand, this fishery brings relatively high returns to the several hundred men and women who each season ply the waters off Alaska's south-central coast in pursuit of king and sockeye salmon. Their marketing success rests on a foundation of biological health: Copper River salmon thrive because of the sheer abundance of wild nature, from headwaters to continental shelf. And for now, local inhabitants have figured out how to dance in step with the forces that yield this abundance.
It wasn't always so. Until Alaska attained statehood in 1959, the federal government set the rules about where and how to fish, in close consultation with salmon-packing companies that cared more for short-term gain than for the enduring strength of the fishery.
"The federal guys didn't control it properly," recalls Ralph Pirtle, a retired biologist who managed the Copper River fishery from 1959 to 1980. "They let it be overfished."
In reaction, the framers of Alaska's constitution enshrined the health of the salmon runs as the first commandment of fisheries. State agencies employ local biologists who decide from week to week how much fishing to permit while still allowing enough salmon upstream to reproduce.
These managers draw on several sophisticated tools. Sonar stations along the banks of the Copper count the number of fish passing by, and airborne spotters scan tributaries to count salmon preparing to spawn. Biologists compare these totals with the number of fish they expect at each point in the season; if too few are detected, the agency cuts back on fishing.
Cared for so attentively, the fish populations rebounded. Commercial catches have more than doubled in the last two decades, even as the number of fish reaching the spawning grounds has grown. The salmon could repopulate the river so effectively because the habitat in the Copper watershed was still intact. Upstream from the river's mouth, adults encounter clear, cold streams in which to lay their eggs. Hatchlings find abundant food and cover, so they can grow large and strong before migrating to the ocean.
The salmon's powers of recovery aren't restricted to sparsely inhabited places such as the Copper River. These resilient fish have bounced back even in California, a state packed with people two hundred times more densely than Alaska. Since the mid-1990s, spring chinook salmon runs have begun to flourish in three creeks that feed the heavily altered Sacramento River, thanks to healthier habitat upstream.
State, federal and local agencies swept away obstacles to the salmon's upriver journey by removing several irrigation dams and equipping others with better fish ladders. Conservation groups acquired rights to water and now keep that water in the streams for the fish. Farmers screened their waterworks to keep fingerlings from being sucked into irrigation ditches. Engineers altered the operation of the massive California Water Project to make sure young salmon could follow the river's current to the ocean instead of being drawn to the mammoth pumps that send water south. The runs got a boost, too, from marine conditions that nourished the bottom of the food chain and set a bountiful table for the salmon when they tasted the Pacific.
To check how well the salmon are doing, divers snorkel through the creeks in August, when the spring chinook wait in deep pools before continuing upriver to spawn. They found that the runs in Butte, Deer and Mill creeks have roughly tripled in the last decade, to a total of over 10,000.
The message from all of this: Salmon can recover as long as their freshwater homes still meet their needs. They thrive best in a wild ecosystem with all of its native creatures, and are most threatened by the human temptation to divert salmon habitat for other uses.
Alarmingly, Alaska's Republican governor, Frank Murkowski, abolished the state fish agency's power to contest projects in salmon habitat. And water rights in California rivers are constantly at risk from thirsty subdivisions and crops.
If we can hold those pressures at bay, springtime will offer a choice of several varieties of salmon caught as they prepare to run up the Copper, the Sacramento and other rivers. If we fail to protect their habitat, our dinners will be the poorer for it and we will have reneged on our debt of gratitude to the fish that have surrendered to our nets for as long as people have made their homes on the west coast of North America.