Protecting Asia’s Giant Salmon, one River at a Time

Portland, Oregon – Big news about a big fish this week, in a forgotten corner of the world.  Our Russian conservation partner, Khabarovsk Wildlife Foundation, announced the creation of a new freshwater protected area (PA) in the Russian Far East, the Tugursky Nature Reserve (see Wild Salmon Center press release here).

This large river system, located in a remote corner of Russia and flowing into the Sea of Okhotsk in the North Pacific, is home to the largest member of the salmon and trout family, the Siberian taimen (Hucho taimen).  Yes, that is right – bigger than the much revered king salmon!  Much bigger.  The largest recorded specimen tipped the scales at 105 kg (231 pounds), and over 2 m (nearly 7 feet) in length!  They can live to be at least 30 years old.  The PA amounts to 80,000 acres (~32,000 hectares), and includes critical riparian and undeveloped floodplain habitat.  Needless to say, a huge conservation win.

A Siberian taimen captured by an angler in the Russian Far East. The populations there are renowned for feeding, and growing large, on abundant Pacific salmon. Photograph by Misha Skopets, courtesy of Wild Salmon Center

In the grand scheme of human development on Earth, lower river riparian and floodplain habitat are the first to be lost (think productive farmland, ship ports, etc.).  A quick Google Earth flyover of any major river system in the United States will easily convince you that we’ve lost a huge amount of this type of river habitat, which is critical to the well-being of freshwater life, including salmon.  I find myself lamenting this loss of habitat every time I cross a large bridge or fly over our coastline near my home in the US Pacific Northwest.

Thanks to trends involving geopolitics, however, many of the great salmon rivers in the Russian Far East are still relatively pristine, with a very light human footprint.  My organization, the Wild Salmon Center, has been working actively with Russian partners since the 1990s to help permanently protect this natural legacy.

One of the important flagship species in this part of the world is the Siberian taimen – due to its life history (in particular, a long generation time compared to other salmon and trout) and its position at the very top of the river food chain, this species serves as an excellent environmental indicator.  The presence of a stable and viable taimen population indicates the river is in a healthy state.  In the US West Coast, Pacific salmon are touted to be a flagship species, but Russian rivers take this concept to the next (trophic) level – these Siberian taimen EAT adult Pacific salmon.

Watching brown bears feed on salmon is mesmerizing enough (see them on a live cam at Brooks Falls in Alaska here), but witnessing a taimen chasing down an adult salmon would certainly be a memorable experience!  How rare of a biological event is this?  I dare say it does not happen in many rivers, just a handful in this region of the world.  Given the strong runs of Pacific salmon in this part of the world (think Lewis & Clark era in the US Pacific Northwest), the net result is some very well fed Siberian taimen!

The Tugur River system in the Russian Far East - all the ingredients for a productive salmon river - broad, undeveloped flood plain, braided river channel, and plenty of instream wood.  Photo by Misha Skopets, Wild Salmon Center.
The Tugur River system in the Russian Far East – all the ingredients for a productive salmon river – broad, undeveloped flood plain, braided river channel, and plenty of instream wood. Photo by Misha Skopets, courtesy of Wild Salmon Center.

This is what makes this week’s announcement so impressive – Russia has made a serious commitment to protect this species and their habitat, and thus preserve an amazing, and rare, biological phenomenon.  Many fishery scientists are obsessed with studying how river fish feed on their prey (the author, included!) –  I suspect seeing taimen feed on adult Pacific salmon (and, as reported elsewhere, ducklings and mice on the water surface) is on the “bucket list” for many of my colleagues.

Alexander Kulikov, the man behind the regional movement to protect salmon rivers in Khabarovsk, Russia. Photo by Pete Rand, Wild Salmon Center.

With so much negative press pouring out of Russia these days – it is time for some good news!  A big thanks goes out to our dedicated partner, Alexander Kulikov, President of the Khabarovsk Wildlife Foundation.   The Wild Salmon Center have worked with our Russian partners to win approval  for protection of over 2 million acres of salmon rivers throughout the Russian Far East, nearly the size of Yellowstone National Park in the US.  With dedicated salmon conservationists like Alexander, this part of the world will remain home to these mysterious, giant salmon for many years to come.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Pete Rand is the conservation biologist at the Wild Salmon Center, headquartered in Portland, Oregon.  He is a salmon scientist, and serves as Chair of the IUCN Salmon Specialist Group.  In recent years he was led research and conservation projects in Russia and Japan, but has extensive experience working in a wide variety of rivers, estuaries and oceans where salmon are found.  Pete recently spent six months in Japan on fellowships from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and Fulbright.   Pete holds a Ph.D. from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.