Last year, 5 college students spent 10 weeks traveling across 10 different states to catch 18 native trout species. This year Trout Unlimited sent four of their brightest college club leaders from the TU Costa 5 Rivers Program to explore the home of the world’s largest runs of wild salmon: Alaska.
On July 5th, the students embarked on an exploratory trip to the Kenai Peninsula, Bristol Bay and the Tongass National Forest in pursuit of the five species of Pacific salmon and other native Salmonids that call Alaska home. In partnership with Costa Sunglasses, Simms Fishing Products, the U.S. Forest Service, Fishpond USA, and Orvis, the students unearthed, documented, and shared the challenges facing the largest salmon fisheries in the world.
By quantifying the economic, political, spiritual, and subsistence significance of the salmon runs, the students helped paint a vivid picture of the necessity of protecting these natural resources for future generations. With salmon runs in global decline, and wild salmon runs in the lower 48 as a looming example of what we have already lost, it is imperative that we protect these renewable resources for future generations.
Over half of the world’s commercial wild-caught sockeye salmon comes from Alaska. It supports thousands of livelihoods across the state. We all have a voice, and it is important to stand up and tell the U.S. Army Core of Engineers and the EPA to keep Bristol bay the way it is. Sign the petition at Standup.tu.org.
In the first part of this blog series, we will be highlighting the students first stop in Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula. “Anchorage is located in Southcentral Alaska and it is the state’s largest city with a population of about 294,000 residents. Anchorage acts as a gateway to the rest of the state because of its root in transportation. It was established in 1914 as a hub for the construction of the Alaskan railroad. From there, the economy was mostly centered around the railroad. Starting in the 30’s, Anchorage began to grow at a rapid rate because military and air transportation were skyrocketing due to war. A few decades later, an enormous oilfield was found in Alaska. This spurred an oil boom, which resulted in further growth of the city of Anchorage. While oil is still the largest industry in Alaska, other industries such as recreation and tourism have grown very quickly. Alaskans depend on sustainable extraction and mining to maintain the diverse and abundant salmon runs that have given the state its stable economy and rich heritage. It is estimated that visitors spend 798 million in the southcentral Alaskan area annually, which employs many Anchorage residents.”
“There are truly no words to express the natural beauty that is Alaska. As soon as we stepped out of Anchorage airport, we took in a deep breath of fresh, clean air. We were humbled by the feeling of finally being in the most remote wilderness America has to offer. Tall green pines sat still in front of majestic mountain ranges and our thoughts wandered off with them. How many moose and bear will we encounter on this journey? Who will be the first to catch a salmon? Is there going to be enough Mexican food to keep McCarthy happy?”
“We had some good laughs trying to pack all of our bags and gear into our rental truck – which instead turned out to be a 300S Chrysler due to some kinks, yet nothing but smiles were to be had. Driving to our house for the night was almost like being in a Hollywood movie: fancy car, windows down, sun roof open, music jamming, Libby and Anthony completely buried by bags and nets in the backseat… all was good. We unpacked our gear at the house then went into town for a bite to eat at a popular pizza joint, Moose’s Tooth. We watched the sun settle in behind the mountains and made our way back home, realizing it was already almost midnight! We stayed up for another hour watching the sky get slightly darker (but not fully), discussed our expectations for the week, then called it a night.”
“I’m so stoked to be doing some volunteer projects with the U.S. Forest Service. Stream Watch on the Russian River to repair fencing along riparian zones, and to then float the Kenai with some rad TU Alaska staff members. Stay tuned for some gnarly pics and stories about these adventures!”
Before fishing, the students learned about the local community in Anchorage, and how the Salmon runs play an integral role in society. They also learned about the negative impact Dams can have on Salmon Migrations:
“To these communities, the return of the salmon each year is a festive season. For most in the region, salmon makes up half of their food supply for the long and bitter winter. When not fishing for themselves, they are fishing to share with the rest of the world. Alaska holds the largest surviving wild salmon fishery in the world which fuels their economy and attracts adventurers from all over. A quarter of the job market is related to the salmon industry, raking in $1.5 billion each year. Similarly, 14,000 full and part-time jobs are created because of these special fish. In another sense, it provides families the opportunity to pass down their traditions to youth and spend time teaching them the science and sustainability of these species. All of these symbolize the independence of the communities to maintain their cultural values.”
“Outside of the native communities the locals highly support the salmon industry. No matter where you are, you can strike up a conversation with anyone about the importance of salmon, not just for Alaska but for the world. Between anglers, biologists, engineers, businessmen, wildlife officers, teachers, volunteers, politicians, and many more, the dependence and respect for these amazing creatures is immeasurable. I have never seen so many people from different fields come together to protect and fight for something that usually goes unnoticed. While sports fishing, commercial fishing, and subsistence fishing have traditionally competed for resources, all of these sectors of the fishing industry have come together to protect the resource on which they all rely. The cultural significance of salmon is so deeply ingrained in Alaskan society, and this is something that we as anglers and conservationists should fight to protect.”
An action packed 10 minutes:
“Libby and I eagerly headed down to fish the Russian River after a day spent repairing fences and learning about bear safety with the US Forest Service. We walked for quite a while hoping to get away from the crowds chasing the sockeye salmon on their journey upstream. Eventually, we reached the end of our path and we were greeted by a canyon. Libby and I separated for a bit, and I dead drifted my streamer through an eddy. Almost immediately I felt a fish smash my streamer. I set the hook and brought in a feisty 12-inch bow. I released the fish, hungry for more. I spotted a nice-looking pool on the other side of the river and crossed through the swift current with hopes of hooking into another bow. Once I reached the other side of the river I looked around and saw what looked to me like perfect bear territory. I made some noise so that a bear would know that I was in the area, but I was still terrified that I was going to run into a bear. I took a few casts, swinging my streamer through the good pool and slowly twitching it back up to where I stood. It was hard for me to focus on fishing with images of bears flashing through my mind after the USFS bear training. I looked around on my side of the river after every cast, but I continued to fish due to the lack of a bear sighting.” “I scanned the river for promising holes and that’s when I saw it… the bear! It was a young black bear trotting down the opposite bank. Almost immediately I thought about Libby. I said “Hey bear…whoah bear…” in a low voice and he looked up at me. The bear put his head back down and continued trotting. Libby was downstream and on the other side of the river and had no visual of the bear. I scooted back and told her that a bear was upstream of her. Looking back on it, she must’ve been terrified. She had no clue how far away the bear was or what it was doing. She began to wade across the river to my side, and right on cue, the bear disappeared into the brush that lined the canyon walls. Libby made it across and we decided to stick a little closer together and switch off fishing holes. I tossed my streamer in the water and gave it a few twitches while we were talking. Not really paying attention, I was very surprised to feel a huge pull at the end of my line. A nice bow was furiously hooked on the end of my line, jumping and running for any brush pile in sight. We managed to land him, and it was a bow unlike any I had caught before, covered in spots from nose to tail. I was ecstatic to look at my first leopard bow. I quickly unhooked the fish and released it. I took a deep breath and sat down on a rock. Wow, what a crazy few minutes!”
The Odyssey students will be heading to Bristol Bay and the Tongass National Forest in the next part of the series, so be sure to tune in for the rest of the story.