Seeing Red Over Salmon


Soon after I moved to Idaho, I fished a tiny little stream — the kind of water where you can catch trout of eight or maybe 10 inches.

And then a behemoth swam by, literally parting the waters.

A salmon.

Half out of the water, it pushed on: the final part of a 900-mile journey to its spawning waters.

As with so many ecological wonders, the sight of such salmon is tinged with a sense of sadness — because the salmon I see now respresent but a tiny fraction of what once was here.

I hear stories of Idaho’s Redfish Lake turned red by sockeye salmon. Now as few as two fish return. Two.

But there’s no need to be a Debbie Downer about salmon. Sometimes conservationists focus too much on what’s lost.

And there’s some hope for salmon. For, unlike so many of the great wild herds and flocks, salmon populations in all their glory are still among us in places like Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed.

There, you can still see rivers turned red with sockeye. You can still eat those fish from the supermarket without guilt, without fearing toxins.

As my friend Scott Hed of the Sportsman’s Alliance for Alaska writes:

“While wild salmon stocks in many parts of the world are in peril, Alaska represents a place where these magnificent fish still return in such abundance that the numbers are staggering and nearly impossible to comprehend.”

So what are we waiting for?

A Canadian mining company is proposing an open-pit gold/copper mine —  called Pebble Mine — in the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed.

We all know this story too often ends like this post began: With an angler staring at a lone salmon, wondering what it must have been like when rivers ran red with fish.

As conservationists, it will cost much less to stand for Bristol Bay now than it will to restore salmon to damaged rivers.

Humans have  gotten the salmon story — the fish story — wrong way too many times.

With political will, though, the Bristol Bay story can have a happy ending.

This requires individuals and organizations, even non-confrontational ones, to take a thoughtful but firm stand. To say: The rivers will still run red at Bristol Bay.

(Photo: Salmon spawning in Alaska. Credit: Charlie Ott.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. What a terrible picture, a poor fish, I think now we need to think about the problems of the environment, or in our rivers will soon be no fish.

  2. Matt,
    Thanks for sharing. Is there something we can do at this point to influence the process?

  3. Thanks Matt for weighing on this issue. We need all the help we can get protecting this increadible part of Alaska.

  4. Matt, thanks for blogging on this important issue!

    Folks can weigh in with the new Secretary of Interior – Ken Salazar. Ask him to put the BLM’s Bristol Bay plan back on the drawing board. The plan announced last November would lift restrictions for mining on roughly 2 million acres of federal lands in the Bristol Bay region. Pebble Mine could be just the first of several large mines in the Bristol Bay region. In fact, the mining industry is talking about establishment of a “world class mining district.” Scary stuff. We’ll be working to keep folks around the country updated on this issue and informed of opportunities to make a difference.

    Also, if anyone is interested in opportunities to make a donation, visit the Sportsman’s Alliance for Alaska web site (Matt linked above). We just launched our 2nd annual online auction and there’s also a limited edition James Prosek sockeye salmon t-shirt available on the “Latest News” page.

    Thanks again for the coverage.

  5. Matt,
    I agree now is not the time and Bristol Bay is not the place. The head of such a storied watershed is the last place to bring in the type of mining system they need to extract the minerals. Not everything is for sale. Mining is necessary but not everywhere with these destructive processes. I am fortunate to have fished this area and it is magnificent. I hope it can be appreciated for generations as it is now.

  6. I’m an outdoor reporter based in Southeast Idaho. I’ve interviewed so many anglers who remember the days of walking across the backs of salmon due to the sheer volume of fish returning to central Idaho. That was decades ago and witnesses to that kind of fishery are dieing off as fast as the fishery did. I’ve also talked to the other side (dams) and I can’t ignore their point as a fair reporter, but you can’t even fish for salmon anymore in the city named after the red swimmer. I’ve seen a run in Alaska and watched bears feast on just the salmon eggs like it’s caviar. Those days are long gone in Idaho. I’d hate to see salmon stories only exist in Alaska legend like they do in Idaho.

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