Salmon and People

Text by Liz McKenzie and Photos by Richard Nelson

Wait I see something:
We come up stream in red canoes.
Answer: The migrating salmon.

         -- Traditional Koyukon Indian Riddle

The First Fishermen

By the time modern Homo sapiens evolved, around 200,000 years ago, salmon had been thriving on the earth for a very, very long time.

The ancestors of the salmonid family appeared 50 to 100 million years ago in Northern Europe. Modern species of salmon, including Pacific salmon, have been around for at least 4 to 6 million years.

Image of a salmon etched about 25,000 years ago on the ceiling of L’Abri du Poisson rock shelter beside the Vezere River in France.

Archeologists believe that salmon were an important part of the diet in Paleolithic Europe, and in fact, the oldest known artistic depiction of a salmon was etched about 25,000 years ago on the ceiling of a rock shelter called L’Abri du Poisson, beside the Vezere River in France.

In Alaska, salmon have long been a central part of life for native people, not only on the coast but also along the inland rivers and lakes. The first people who crossed the Bering land bridge from Asia 12,000 to 15,000 years ago almost certainly depended on salmon as an important part of their diet.

Calling Up the Red Canoe

A Koyukon Indian family cutting chum salmon beside the Koyukuk River in interior Alaska.
For many native villagers throughout Alaska, life still revolves around the seasonal migration of salmon. In mid summer, fish camps are established along the banks of rivers and streams, and while people wait for the salmon to come, they prepare the nets, set up drying racks, and get ready for the busy time ahead.

In the past, Koyukon Indians living along the Yukon River watched with a sharp eye for a V-shaped ripple on the slick, smooth surface—a telltale sign of king salmon swimming upstream. Then they would paddle out into the river with their dip nets in hand, to make a perfectly timed scoop into the murky water. The reward could be a salmon weighing thirty pounds or more.

Koyukon traditions teach that every salmon has a powerful spirit, and the first salmon caught each year should be welcomed with a small but important ritual. Dipping a willow branch in the water and sprinkling it on the fish, people should say, “Pull up your canoe here”, inviting other fish to come to this place.

Afterward the fish is cooked and everyone shares their first freshly caught salmon of the season. Customs like this are followed in hundreds of other native communities along the Pacific Coast, where the first salmon are honored with ceremonies specific to each tribe.

Fish Camp

In traditional times, fish were caught in a number of ingenious ways…with nets made from willow bark or rawhide and with large fish traps or weirs set up in rivers or tributary streams. The traps usually consisted of a barrier fence made with poles that guide the fish through a narrow funnel and then into a box or basket, so they cannot find their way back out.

Over countless generations, Native American and Canadian First Nations people learned the importance of carefully regulating their salmon catch to avoid overharvesting. When they had enough fish, the nets and traps were removed, allowing plenty of salmon to spawn, to assure strong runs in following years.

Salmon drying on rack in a Koyukon Indian fish camp.

Nowadays, native villagers catch most of their salmon with gill nets made of lightweight, durable nylon. But successful fishing still requires an intimate knowledge of when each salmon run arrives, where the fish concentrate and how they behave, as well as the dynamics of river eddies, currents, and water levels. And with the fluctuations in the number of salmon coming upstream from year to year, in bad times even these skills may not be enough to assure ample food for the year ahead.

But if all goes well, there’s a bounty of fish to process in camp. People still prepare most fish in the traditional way. This is a laborious process, usually done by the family working as a team. First each salmon is skillfully cut, removing the organs and separating the meat into two filets joined at the tail. The meat itself is scored with short horizontal cuts to speed the drying. Then the fish are washed and hung on the drying racks.

These steps may be repeated hundreds of times to process a single day’s catch. In many communities, the women are especially skilled at catching and preparing fish, but usually the men and boys are also involved. Since a time beyond memory, family members have worked together this way along rivers and coastlines throughout the North.

Underneath drying racks laden with filleted salmon, small, slow-burning smudge fires are placed so the smoke drifts up through the drying fish. Often the racks are inside smokehouses that concentrate both the heat and smoke. This helps to keep away flies that could lay eggs and ruin the flesh—and it helps the fish to dry faster.

In this way, summer’s bounty is preserved for use year ‘round.

Salmon Spirit

In many tribes, salmon are considered more than just a mortal being or a food source. Koyukon Indians, for example, have learned from the elders that salmon have a spirit, which must be treated respectfully by keeping the fish clean and handling them with care.

Fishing nets have a powerful spirit too, and harm can come to anyone who takes fish from another’s net or uses the net without first asking permission from the owner.

There is also a protective aspect to a salmon spirit. For example, in Koyukon tradition, a piece of dried fish can help to protect someone against harmful spirits. People sometimes weave a small strip of fish skin into their snowshoes as a safeguard. Similarly, nailing a piece of dried salmon inside the house can help to keep the occupants safe. According to custom, children carrying a piece of dried fish or vertebrae are protected from lingering spirits of those who had recently passed on. Vests made out of dried fish skin could also protect the spirits of small children.

These are just a few ways that salmon are still woven into the fabric of village life in modern times—in ongoing cultural traditions, in celebrations, and in the practical skills of subsistence fishing and processing.

Salmon Economics: The Distribution of Wealth

Australian visitors, Guy Fitzhardinge and Mandy Martin, with freshly caught coho salmon for the dinner table.
In addition to the native traditions of subsistence fishing, many other people in communities throughout Alaska depend on salmon to feed their families each year. Especially in the smaller and more remote communities, salmon are an essential food source, regularly featured on the daily menu. In thousands of homes across Alaska, through the prolonged cold and darkness of winter, families savor the rewards of summer’s salmon harvest.

Commercial salmon fishing is one of the most important industries in Alaska. The direct value of salmon catches paid to fishermen statewide totaled over half a billion dollars in 2012. However impressive this might be, it is only a fraction of the total overall value of salmon to Alaska when processing, shipping, retail sales, and other incomes are added in.

The esthetic and nutritional values of salmon are perhaps equally important, even if they cannot be measured in economic terms. Wild Alaska salmon is a highly esteemed food, shipped all over the world, prized for its exceptional taste and high quality as an organic protein, which is rich in heart-healthy Omega-3’s.

There is another fundamentally important aspect to the value of salmon to people—tourism. About one and a half million people visit Alaska each year, many of them drawn by the prospect of watching salmon thronging in the waterways; seeing black bears, grizzly bears, and wolves pursue fish in the spawning streams; glimpsing seals, sea lions, dolphins, and killer whales that also feed on salmon; and spotting the crowds of bald eagles and countless other birds that thrive on salmon.

We know that salmon are an important food source for more than a hundred animal species. Salmon also bring vital ocean nutrients to Alaska’s great coastal forests. And we know that tourists and other visitors spend more than two billion dollars in Alaska each year to witness the spectacle of wild nature…much of which is fueled by salmon.

Commercial salmon fisherman in southeast Alaska preparing cohos for delivery to the processor.

Salmon are a brilliant natural phenomenon—a miracle of resilience, adaptability, and sustainability. Wherever salmon runs are found, people are awed by them.

Salmon nourish our bodies, enrich our cultural traditions, and sustain our economies. Simply put, from a human standpoint, salmon are the single most important wild animal in the world.

And every year, even after many thousands of years of interaction with humans, even after all the hurdles humans have placed in their paths, millions of salmon still return to the coasts where they have always spawned…a vast throng of shimmering spirits.

Learn more about the miraculous life cycle of salmon.

Learn more about how salmon connect the forest and the sea.

Learn more about the history of salmon (and why the past matters).

Learn more about the future of Alaska's wild salmon.

For listening:

Salmon in Indian River
Salmon Subsistence
Salmon: The Miracle

For Viewing:

Secrets of a Winter Salmon Stream
The Salmon Forest
The Miracle of Salmon

For Further Reading:

Atlas of Pacific Salmon
Alaska’s Wild Salmon
Fishes of the Last Frontier
King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon
Reaching Home: Pacific Salmon, Pacific People
Salmon in the Trees
Sustaining Alaska’s Fisheries: Fifty Years of Statehood
The Island Within
Make Prayers to the Raven
Hunters of the Northern Forest

Important Links:

Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Alaska Fish and Wildlife News
Alaska Wildlife Notebook Series
US Fish and Wildlife Service

This project was partially funded by NOAA Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Funds administered by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fund.

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