Nonprofit of the Month: The Wild Salmon Center

The Wild Salmon Center is a leading salmon conservation organization, focusing on salmon strongholds in northern California and the Pacific Northwest, up to British Columbia and Alaska and across to Russia and Japan. Through their powerful alliances, the Wild Salmon Center works tirelessly to preserve and enhance wild salmon populations; to date, they have protected over 2.7 million acres of essential salmon habitat. Follow this interview to learn more about what the Wild Salmon Center does!

Flylords: Tell us a little bit about how and why Wild Salmon Center (WSC) started.

WSC: The Wild Salmon Center was founded in 1992 by fly fishermen Pete Soverel and Tom Pero. Former Navy captain Pete Soverel wanted to understand the mysteries of some of the Pacific’s most storied and productive salmon streams, before they were gone. In 1998, Soverel hired Guido Rahr as the organization’s first executive director. Guido was also one of the first western anglers in Kamchatka, and he came to Pete with a vision: a Pacific Rim network of protected salmon rivers, or “strongholds.”

We’re now the leading group working to protect the strongest wild salmon rivers around the entire North Pacific. We work from northern California and the Pacific Northwest, up to British Columbia and Alaska and across to Russia and Japan. We focus on salmon because they are an iconic and powerful conservation symbol, wild to the core, with an incredible life story. When you protect salmon, you protect a whole watershed and everything in it, including people. The most beautiful and important rivers of the North Pacific all depend on salmon and the nutrients they carry inland from the ocean.

We target salmon strongholds—the richest, strongest salmon rivers in the Pacific—because it’s easier to protect rivers while they are still healthy and thriving.  We build alliances with the most effective local and regional partners working in the North Pacific’s salmon strongholds. We help these groups design and implement winning strategies built on our scientific, political, legal, fundraising and communications expertise.

Sockeye salmon, courtesy of Jason Ching

Flylords: What are some of the ways WSC protects and benefits wild salmon?

WSC: History shows us that protecting a river system before it’s broken is far cheaper and simpler than trying to rebuild it. Over the past two decades we’ve secured millions of acres of stronghold habitat across the North Pacific Rim and improved fish management practices for wild salmon on more than 70 rivers, from the Oregon Coast to the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East. We continue to work with local groups in our best stronghold regions, such as Bristol Bay, Alaska, and British Columbia’s Skeena River, to protect these places from ill-conceived development projects that threaten wild salmon. We support education programs to build the next generation of salmon advocates in Alaska and Russia. And we work with policy makers in state capitals and Washington, DC, to ensure that we are managing our lands and waters in a way to ensure we have healthy wild salmon in the future.

Flylords: Speaking of wild salmon, why are they so important to WSC and what makes them so much better than hatchery fish?

WSC: If we want salmon around for our kids and grandkids, we have to protect WILD salmon. They’re a keystone species—meaning these wild, amazing, seagoing creatures literally feed the rivers they return to, dispersing marine nutrients into freshwater food webs and surrounding forests. In southeastern Alaska, spawning salmon contribute up to 25 percent of the nitrogen in the foliage of trees, resulting in tree growth rates nearly three times higher than in areas without salmon spawning. And they are among the most adaptable creatures on the planet.

Flylords: Do you have any metrics that speak towards your almost 30 years of protecting wild salmon?

WSC: Since 2003, we–along with our partners–have achieved formal conservation status for nearly three million acres in Russia and North America, including the 1.2-million-acre Shantar Islands National Park in the Sea of Okhotsk. We’ve helped to stop or shelve two dams proposed on major salmon rivers, and recently supported legislation to halt the Pebble Mine project in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. We’ve also directly launched 13 organizations—from the Coastal Rivers Conservancy in British Columbia to Russia’s Wild Salmon Territory—that build on our vision.

Photo courtesy of Brian Kelley

Flylords: What are some of the ‘salmon strongholds’ that you all target? How are they holding up?

WSC: When we look around the North Pacific, there are intact places we just can’t lose: the Smith River in California; Bristol Bay, Alaska; the Skeena and Dean rivers in B.C.; and, the Zhupanova and the Uktholok/Kvachina system in Kamchatka. These watersheds are top priorities and we are doing all we can to keep them whole. We also target regional strongholds in the Lower 48 that are relatively strong, but need some help weathering the impacts and threats spurring from this century. In places like the Oregon Coast, Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and California’s Klamath-Siskiyou region, we take a mixed approach of protection and restoration: taking out culverts to open up cold water, lobbying for better forest practices, and advocating for better wild fish management.

Sockeye salmon, courtesy of Jason Ching

Flylords: How does WSC use science to direct its campaigns?

WSC: A good example is our work to support coho salmon recovery on the Oregon coast. In 2017, our team led the development of three science-driven strategic action plans to guide our partners in identifying restoration priorities within the Nehalem, Siuslaw, and Elk River watersheds. The work, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has so far supported the construction of 28 beaver dam analogs in the Nehalem River, large-scale wood installation in the Siletz River, and floodplain reconnection work on agricultural lands in the Elk River. In August 2019, NOAA funded an expansion of this project to the Upper Rogue, Coos Bay, and Siletz River watersheds.

Flylords: You guys have five ongoing campaigns. Care to tell us about a couple of them?

WSC: Alaska’s Bristol Bay—where Canadian mining interests are threatening to build a massive, toxic open pit mine—is our biggest campaign at the moment, for good reason. But, we’re active across the North Pacific. Take two current campaigns in the state of Washington. One is our fight against a proposed dam on the Upper Chehalis River in Southwestern Washington (which would cost $1 billion and would absolutely have a devastating impact on the Chehalis River’s most threatened salmon populations). Just North, we’re expanding our Cold Water Connection campaign in the Olympic Peninsula, which is home to 50 percent of the state’s non-endangered wild salmon. We have a goal of opening up 150 miles of high-priority streams currently blocked by outdated road culverts. On watersheds like the Hoh, Quillayute, Queets, and Calawah, these culverts—essentially mini-dams—prevent salmon and steelhead from using cold reaches to ride out hot summer months.

Flylords: Pebble Mine and Bristol Bay have been recently getting national news coverage. How dangerous would Pebble Mine actually be for Bristol Bay’s salmon?

WSC: Pebble would wipe out 80 miles of salmon streams and over 3,500 acres of wetlands, just in its first stage. If fully built out, Pebble would be one of the world’s largest open pit mines, with an earthen dam 60-stories-tall that would ultimately hold up to 10 billion tons of toxic tailings and contaminated water—forever. That’s if it doesn’t fail, as 11 similar dams have, catastrophically, in just the past decade. The mine and tailings lake would sit just north of Iliamna Lake, the largest lake in Alaska and one of the most important sockeye salmon nurseries in the world, supporting a $1.5 billion-a-year fishing economy. But Pebble Partnership has spent millions on lobbyists over the last several years to fast-track the mine and curry favor with political appointees, who are now ignoring the scientific assessments and concerns catalogued by their own federal agencies since 2010.

A picture of Bristol Bay courtesy of Fly Out Media

Flylords: How is WSC fighting for Bristol Bay?

WSC: One of the main ways we’re fighting the Pebble Mine project is through science. Our team helped lead a scientific review of the Army Corps of Engineers environmental impact statement, pointing out the significant gaps in data and poor analysis that leave Bristol Bay highly vulnerable to this mine’s dangers. We’re making sure the mine’s environmental risks become public knowledge. And we’re making sure that members of Congress in DC know about those risks, especially given the Army Corps deeply flawed draft assessment, which U.S. Fish & Wildlife called “so inadequate that it precludes meaningful analysis.” We’re also supporting on-the-ground campaigns with our local partners, to make sure the voices of Alaskans and their allies are heard.

Flylords: It seems like wild salmon face threats in every direction from things like climate change, predation, low water, salmon farms, etc. What are some of the most serious threats to wild salmon?

WSC: In the conservation world we call the primary threats to wild salmon the “Four Hs”—harvest, hydropower, habitat loss, and hatcheries. We’re focused on the habitat piece: preserving strongholds; fighting new dam construction; removing and rethinking barriers to fish passage, like culverts; cooling rivers and streams; and advancing fish and forest management practices that prioritize the needs of wild salmon. The threats we address all stem from human development and shortsighted forest management practices.

Flylords: While nowhere near historic levels, how are wild salmon doing on America’s Pacific West coast?

WSC: The range for wild Pacific salmon is shrinking, and the same effects of climate change that we feel are starkly real for salmon: this August, Alaska experienced massive salmon die-offs due to record high water temperatures. However, there is hope; salmon are an amazingly resilient species. If we can protect and enhance the cold water habitats they need for spawning and rearing, they have a fighting chance of surviving and thriving in the Lower 48. We are focused on shoring up habitat and ensuring access to cold water on rain-fed systems on the Oregon and Washington coasts, where climate projections give wild salmon a fighting chance.

Flylords: The book Stronghold—which tells the story of WSC’s President and CEO, Guido Rahr—was recently released and reviewed by the New York Times. Care to give our readers a taste of Stronghold?

WSC: Absolutely! Readers can find an excerpt here.

WSC President and CEO, Guido Rahr,  courtesy of Brian Kelley

Flylords: How can everyday fly fishermen help WSC and its goals?

WSC: Right now, we need all voices raised to fight against Bristol Bay—by contacting your representatives in Congress to let them know you oppose construction of the world’s largest open pit mine right by the world’s greatest sockeye salmon run. (We can help connect you.) And when you shoot those photos on the river, keep ‘em wet, folks!

For more on the Wild Salmon Center and how you can help, click here!

Thank you, Wild Salmon Center, for taking the time to talk with us and for everything you all do!

Nonprofit of the Month: The Mayfly Project

Nonprofit of the Month: Bonefish & Tarpon Trust

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