A New Idea to Protect Wild Salmon

Spawning Salmon – Photo: Amy Gulick   http://www.amygulick.com.

A few years ago I visited Southeast Alaska and saw more salmon than I thought I’d ever see in my entire life. The question: will they be there for our next generation?

Southeast Alaska is one of the last places in the United States where wild salmon still thrive. A place where a healthy, fully functioning ecosystem churns out tens of millions of these fish every year, employing more than 7,300 people in fishing, processing and guiding jobs. A place where salmon underpin the culture and lifestyles of people with ancestral ties to the region dating back 10,000 years or more. It’s a cold and mossy rainforest of giant cedar, spruce and hemlock trees with nearly 18,000 miles of salmon-filled rivers.

Most of this place is designated the Tongass National Forest. This 17-million-acre forest covers most of Southeast Alaska and functions as a huge nursery for five species of wild Pacific salmon. At its most basic level, the Tongass is a salmon forest.

I and more than 230 other scientists will be calling on Congress to protect Tongass salmon. The vehicle is a proposal to Congress to help protect the 77 most high-value watersheds for salmon that remain open to development. These 77 watersheds comprise nearly 2 million rainforest acres. The new effort is called the Tongass 77.

Scientists, agency officials, fishermen and conservationists have determined that these are ”the best of the best” when it comes to producing salmon. These are high-yield waterways that year after year return high numbers of spawning salmon. They’re worth protecting.
By that I mean managing them for salmon production as priority number one. This doesn’t mean they’re locked up and nothing else can occur from a jobs perspective. Under this proposal, income-generating activities ranging from mining to hydropower can happen if they’re consistent with the top management goal of conserving the natural habitat for wild salmon.

If Tongass salmon are so healthy and rich in number, why do they need protection measures like Tongass 77? The history of salmon in the rest of the Pacific Coast, and in so many other parts of the world, tells the story. In states south of Canada, like California, Oregon and Washington, Pacific salmon no longer spawn in nearly half of their original spawning areas. A toxic mix of habitat loss from urban sprawl, agricultural run-off, dams, logging, privatization, and other stamps of human behavior have decimated salmon runs across the Pacific Northwest.

Alaska, and specifically the Tongass which produces one-third of the state’s total salmon harvest, is the country’s last bastion of healthy salmon country. And even in the Last Frontier, a slew of threats loom over Tongass salmon, including land privatization proposals, logging, mineral development and climate change. The Tongass 77, if enacted by Congress, would help permanently protect at the watershed scale — meaning from ridge top to shoreline — a large block of what’s left of the country’s wild salmon habitat. It would help ensure the long-term viability of these fish.
The Tongass 77 is a pro-active conservation strategy that makes sense for Southeast Alaska. Google the words Tongass and American Salmon Forest to find out how to get involved. Or go to americansalmonforest.org and sign on.

Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.
  • Paula Dobbyn

    Carl’s column is right on. Now is the time to take steps, like enacting the Tongass 77, so that wild salmon in Southeast Alaska will continue to thrive for future generations and sustain the thousands of jobs that depend on healthy runs. Thanks for speaking out on behalf of Tongass wild salmon!

  • andrew thoms

    The Tongass truly is a Salmon Forest. Right now in Sitka, Alaska, which is in the heart of the Tongass, the community is bustling with activity around Salmon. People from the lower 48 are visiting to fish for salmon, neighborhoods smell like alder smoke as Sitkans preserve their catch to keep for food throughout the year, and commercial fishermen are prepping their boats for the fishing openings that will supply salmon to fish-mongers and restaurants across the Nation.
    We truly have a renewable resource here on the Tongass with Salmon. Even though we have this renewable resource and work to continue a 10,000 year legacy of living-with and depending-upon these salmon, our leaders and policy makers are still obsessively focus on opening up new oil and gas drilling areas in more and more dangerous and sensitive areas, new fracking technology that we don’t know the implications of, and mining proposals that could lay waste to entire landscapes.
    It is high time that we think about how our actions are going to carry on across generations and what we are leaving for the future. We are blessed that Salmon are still part of our lives in Alaska and were not taken away by the actions of previous generations. It is absolutely necessary that we protect these salmon producing watersheds now so that we can ensure that these salmon runs will continue well into the future. Sustainability, rather than booms-and-busts and non-renewable resources, is what we should be celebrating. Protecting salmon producing watersheds is a way we can do that.
    I agree with Mr. Sofina and all the other scientists that we need to protect these areas in the Tongass for salmon.

  • Greg Taylor

    This is the equivalent of the decision to create your National Park system. I am not saying that the Tongass should be a National Park. I am arguing that the concept is as important for this century as creating Yellowstone was in 1873. Establishing salmon as priority one in socio-economic decision-making will support the community of interests living in the area for generations to come.


  • Amy

    We need the same things that salmon do in order to thrive — clean water, air, healthy oceans, and forests. By ensuring that wild salmon can thrive, we’re looking out for ourselves too. For once, let’s get it right somewhere. There’s still time and opportunity to maintain wild salmon and a way of life they allow people in the Tongass National Forest of Alaska. We can do this!

  • Bertrand Ruhle

    I found a new way to reproduce the wild salmon by the millions
    It took me a few years to find the way to do this without to much money to the salmon to spon and doubble the wild salmon.THE IDEA WOULD CHANGE THE WAY THE SALMON IS RETURING TO THE RIVERS

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media