Story and Photography by Guido Rahr III
It as a clear day as we flew south from Petropavlosk to the southern tip of eastern Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. I could see 100 miles in any direction. Our route followed a line of snowcapped volcanoes, which extended along the eastern flank of the Peninsula. Occasionally the helicopter would circle a summit, giving us a glimpse of the steaming crater inside. Beyond the volcanoes, and underneath the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, the continental shelf plummeted 20,000 feet into the Kuril Trench, a subduction zone where the Pacific plate is slowly sliding underneath the Asian plate.
I am a conservationist. For a living I work to protect wild salmon, steelhead and trout. In my career I have traveled all over the world and seen many beautiful places, often just before or after they have been lost. I have been lucky enough to help save a few places, but I must admit that the successes have been rare and always hard fought. Of all the memorable places I have seen, nothing prepared me for what I saw out of the window of an MI8 helicopter, 5,000 feet above Kamchatka.
Below us was a landscape that spread from horizon to horizon, apparently untouched by human development. It was pristine and wild. It was not a barren-looking Arctic environment, but rather a land of massive, snowcapped volcanoes blanketed with lush forests of birch and tamarack. The mountains were bisected by broad valleys where clear rivers wandered through marshes, grasslands, and thickets of willows and cottonwoods. This was a landscape as rich as my home, Oregon, must have been when Lewis and Clark arrived in the fall of 1805.
Two hours and 150 miles later we reached our destination: Kurilsky Lake, an enormous flooded volcanic caldera where more than 1 million sockeye salmon gather and spawn every year. It occurred to me that we had flown over an area almost half the size of Washington State, yet we had seen barely a trace of human life. No cars, no cities, no dams, no cattle, no irrigation withdrawals, no roads pushing the river against one side of the valley. Here was a vast region that had miraculously escaped the pressures that have driven native populations of salmon and steel-head into widespread decline-and extinction-across the Pacific Rim.
The Kamchatka Peninsula extends south 800 miles from Siberia, forming the western shore of the Pacific Ocean on one side and the eastern shore of the Sea of Okhotsk on the other. There are fewer than 500,000 people in Kamchatka, more than half of whom live in the capital city, Petropavlosk. Kamchatka is home to many natural wonders, including 26 active volcanoes, half the world's population of Steller's sea eagles, vast breeding grounds for waterfowl and shorebirds, and the largest population of brown bears on Earth.
But I was here to see the rivers. They are home to the greatest concentrations of salmon, steelhead, trout and char species in the world. Some rivers in western Kamchatka sustain runs of chinook, chum, pink, sockeye, coho, and Asian masu salmon, as well as steelhead, resident rainbow trout, Dolly Varden char and Asian white-spotted char.
From the air, I could see why these rivers were so productive, and what had been lost from the rivers of my home in the Pacific Northwest. From their headwaters in glaciers, lava fields, perched meadows and forested canyons, the rivers cascaded through a mountainous terrain untouched by human hands. Where the rivers found the smooth contours of the lower elevation valleys, the differences between these Kamchatkan rivers and our own rivers were even more pronounced. The rivers I saw from the helicopter divided into braids that wandered across the valley floors, connecting a glittering miasma of pools, riffles, old water-filled channels, oxbows and marshes. These floodplain habitats-long since lost in the United States to agricultural and urban development- provided not only the biological productivity of wetlands, but a wide gradient of micro-habitats for all of the varieties and life stages of juvenile salmon, trout and char. Indeed, when the helicopter landed, we saw thousands of fingerling salmon and char in these swampy off-channel meanders.
Recent research has shown that salmon are more than just a seasonal visitor to their home rivers-they are biological cornerstones of the ecosystems where they live. In coastal watersheds in the northwestern United States and western Canada, studies have shown that salmon and other anadromous fish bring biomass and nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon, and micronutrients) from the sea into freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. For example, more than 40 species of mammals and birds in southeastern Alaska forage on salmon eggs, juveniles and adults in fresh water, and the growth and reproductive success of salmon has been linked to the biomass of salmon carcasses in the system. Sockeye salmon runs in Alaska add up to 170 tons of phosphorous per year to Lake Illiamna, and the number of salmon carcasses carried by brown bears to within 100 meters of streams can add phosphorous to terrestrial systems at a rate of 6.77 kilograms per hectare-the application rate of commercial fertilizers for evergreen trees!
It is no surprise then that Kamchatka salmon support roughly 5,000-10,000 Kamchatka brown bears (the largest brown bears known), 1,800 endangered Steller's sea lions, and an estimated 2,500 Steller's sea eagles (the largest eagle on Earth). During two weeks in the field in October 1998, ornithologist Vladimir Masterov of Moscow State University counted 17 bird species in the Utkholok and Kvachina watersheds of western Kamchatka, ranging from eagles to ducks to magpies, that are known to feed on salmon eggs, juveniles and carcasses. Salmon are the primary driver of Kamchatka's economy-fish products make up 50 percent of Kamchatka's industrial output-and provide a critical food resource for Kamchatka communities, including native Koryak and Itelmen people in northwestern Kamchatka. Clearly, any attempts to protect ecosystems in Kamchatka will need to ensure the survival of strong runs of anadromous fish upon which this whole natural system depends.
In 1993 The Wild Salmon Center, an international not-for- profit salmon and steelhead conservation organization, formed a partnership with Moscow State University and the Koryak Environmental Protection Committee to help study and protect the wild steelhead of Kamchatka. The Kamchatka Steelhead Project is supported by both charitable foundations and anglers, who work with Russian and American scientists to gather data on the steelhead before they are released. The project now involves fishery management agencies and universities in Russia, Canada and the United States. International cooperation has resulted in a dozen scientific papers, life history data collections from 14 rivers, and a range of efforts to protect steelhead from illegal overharvest and habitat destruction. In 1996, participants in the Kamchatka Steelhead Project collected two forms of trout (one apparently a cutthroat) never seen before.
Kamchatka is pristine today, but danger looms on the horizon. From June through October of last year The Wild Salmon Center was contracted by the United Nations Development Program to conduct a "Fisheries Needs Assessment" for Kamchatka. This assessment is part of an ongoing effort by the United Nations to attract international support for the protection of Kamchatka's biological diversity. In the process of developing the needs assessment, we conducted dozens of interviews with Russian fishery scientists, managers, environmentalists, international experts and others. This is what we found:
Russia appears to be losing the war against illegal fishing. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Kamchatka's fisheries were relatively well protected. But as Russia's economy has deteriorated, so has the capacity of fish management agencies to enforce laws regulating harvest. The illegal trade in adult salmon and salmon caviar is now estimated to comprise at least half the total harvest, with some estimates valuing illegal harvest of salmon and other marine species in Kamchatka's waters at more than $1 billion U.S. annually. Especially alarming is the harvest of salmon caviar. Russian newspapers and eyewitnesses have reported MI8 helicopters taking tons of salmon caviar from protected areas such as the Kommandorsky Islands Biosphere Reserve and South Kamchatsky Nature Reserve. Officials with Kamchatrybvod, Russia's federal fisheries management agency, report that overfishing- including caviar harvest-has already caused declines in several important rivers, including the Kamchatka, Bolshaya, and Avacha rivers.
Russia's only steelhead stocks occur on the Kamchatka Peninsula, where they are listed in Russia's Red Book of Endangered Species. Kamchatka steelhead have declined dramatically since the 1970s, mostly as a result of illegal harvest in estuaries and lower river segments. For example, steelhead in the Kovran, Mitoga and Utka rivers in western Kamchatka have been damaged or lost from illegal netting.
Kamchatka contains an estimated 1,000 tons of gold, 5,000 tons of silver, as well as large deposits of platinum and other minerals. Although large-scale industrial mining has not yet begun (in part due to the low price of gold along with the social and economic instability of Russia), various American, Canadian, and Russian firms are developing plans to mine these resources.
Marine oil deposits have been discovered off Kamchatka's west coast, under the Sea of Okhotsk. Development of these deposits could cause the destruction of marine and estuarine salmon habitat, disrupting the food web vital to salmon survival.
Large deposits of natural gas have been discovered along the western shore of Kamchatka and throughout the Sea of Okhotsk. A proposed pipeline to deliver the much-needed gas to Petropavlosk is presently being routed across roughly 20 river systems that flow into the Sea of Okhotsk. As currently planned, the road paralleling the pipeline would open these pristine and inaccessible river systems to increased illegal salmon, steelhead and caviar fishing. A less-damaging route can and should be found. The threats are especially alarming because the rivers affected-including the Bolshaya, Utka, Kukhchik and Opala-contain the greatest watershed level diversity of salmon, trout, and char stocks known.
If history is any guide, Kamchatka will move down the same path that has resulted in the disappearance of native runs of salmon along both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It just has not happened yet in Kamchatka, which was protected from outside development by the Soviet Union until 1990. Today, Kamchatka is at the same cross-roads other once-salmon-rich regions crossed a century ago: protect wild salmon resources for long-term sustain-ability or sacrifice them for short-term exploitation. Tragically, almost without exception, these nations have chosen exploitation over conservation.
If one reviews the declines of salmon in Europe and the northeastern United States, and salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest, a pattern emerges: Once the threats to wild salmon are underway (mines, dams, forest harvest, etc.), triggering a severe decline in original runs-to extinction or levels close to extinction-restoration is difficult or impossible. Unfortunately, we have not yet learned to restore self-sustaining runs of wild salmon and steelhead to their native rivers once they have disappeared. Despite billions of dollars and the hard work of thousands of biologists, the wild salmon of the Columbia, Sacramento, Connecticut, Rhine, Loire and hundreds of other rivers around the world continue to slide toward extinction.
We should not give up. Instead we must continue to focus research and experimentation on unraveling the mystery of restoring wild runs of salmon before precious remaining stocks -- the building blocks for future recovery -- have vanished.
One hundred years ago, Livingston Stone, a retired Unitarian minister and early conservationist, begged the assembled members of the American Fisheries Society to create refuges for wild salmon "before complications arise which may make it impracticable, or at least very difficult." Stone's proposals were ignored, as were other proposals over the ensuing 100 years. History has shown Stone to be right-the politics of a crowded landscape have made the creation of large fish refuges for the few remaining healthy stocks almost "impracticable." Indeed, many of us believe that if we had invested the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on fish hatcheries in acquiring key habitat to create refuges instead, we would have more healthy stocks of salmon and steelhead today.
It is less expensive and far more effective to focus efforts on preventing healthy salmon and steelhead runs from declining in the first place. This window of time, or cross-roads, before the causes of salmon and steelhead decline are entrenched, is the critical time to invest in conservation. That window began to close on the East Coast of the United States 200 years ago, throughout much of Europe 100 years ago, and on the West Coast of the U. S. as recently
as 50 years ago. We are now at such a crossroads in Kamchatka.
Last October, I joined The Wild Salmon Center and Moscow State University's field camp on the Utkholok River in western Kamchatka. The river flowed in graceful arcs toward the Sea of Okhotsk, wandering across coastal tundra and through forests of pine bush and birch. Tens of thousands of salmon had turned every square foot of river bottom into a continuous spawning bed, cratered from bank to bank by the digging of a season's worth of salmon tails-first chinook, then chum, sockeye, pink, and finally schools of coho that now littered the stream bank.
Each day we saw rainbow trout, char, gulls, eagles, foxes, wolverines and many other species gorging on the dying salmon. The banks of the river had been pounded flat by the paws of brown bears, some weighing more than 1,000 pounds (although the bears were so shy we rarely saw them). Once or twice a week a Koryak hunter would ride through camp on horseback, on his way to tend his herd of reindeer or to check his nets for salmon. It was clear that all the natural members of this salmon-driven ecosystem were there. And it occurred to me that I may be one of the last people outside Russia to see such a system intact.
From a global perspective, we cannot afford to lose Kamchatka. Outside western Alaska and a few places in British Columbia, there simply are not any large areas left along the Pacific Rim to preserve not only native runs of salmon and steelhead, but also the intact food web they support and that support them. Today, most stocks from central British Columbia to Vancouver Island are in steep decline. The majority of stocks of salmon and steelhead in California, Oregon, Idaho and Washington have been listed or proposed for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. Wild salmon in Japan, China and southern Russia-including the Amur Basin and parts of Sakhalin Island-are in decline. Fragmentary information indicates that stocks in rivers flowing to the Sea of Okhotsk, west of Kamchatka, are also in decline or at risk of extinction.
Based on our work in Kamchatka, there are some strategic investments the international community can make that will help the Russians prevent the future decline of Kamchatka's wild salmon and steelhead runs:
(1) Conduct inventories of estuarine and freshwater species such as salmon, trout and steelhead (including their distribution and abundance) to establish a biological baseline to monitor their health over time.
(2) Provide seed money and technical support to help Russian fishery management agencies and non-governmental conservation groups increase their capacity to protect and manage fish stocks over time. Especially important is assistance to help Russia protect fish stocks from illegal overfishing in both marine and freshwater areas.
(3) Support Russian efforts to create refuges for wild salmon, steelhead and trout to protect some of the most important stocks from overfishing and habitat loss.
(4) Support local economic development efforts such as sport fishing, ecotourism, and low-impact sustainable fish harvest and processing programs. Such efforts will help local communities earn more money from healthy native fish stocks and enable these practices to "compete" economically with more damaging uses.
(5) Generate international support for and awareness of the global importance of Kamchatka and the need to help Russia balance economic development with the protection of wild fish and other species.
Fortunately, salmon are extremely popular in Kamchatka, and Russia has good laws protecting salmon and their habitat. For example, Russian salmon streams are protected on each side by a one kilometer buffer strip- a world record. Russia's fishery biologists are among the best in the world; our Russian colleagues have graciously welcomed our assistance. Yet the irony is not lost on them that we, having done such a miserable job of protecting our own salmon resource, are now offering to help the Russians protect theirs-a resource which, for the most part, has been doing fine so far.
What we can offer -- in addition to much-needed funding and technical support -- is a perspective on what the future may bring. We have witnessed catastrophic salmon declines along both our shores. We have seen which conservation strategies worked, and which didn't. Perhaps we can help Russia avoid making the same mistakes we have. Kamchatka represents a real chance to travel back in time hundreds of years. We have a chance to work together to develop and fund programs that may-this first time- keep bad history from repeating itself.
If we don't get it right in Kamchatka, there will be no more chances.
Guido R. Rahr III is Executive Director of the Wild Salmon Center, which is based in Portland, Oregon.