A new book out this spring from the National Geographic Society speaks of the Bristol Bay watershed, with its world famous sockeye salmon run, and the threat that large-scale mining poses to the ecosystem. Hidden Alaska, Bristol Bay and Beyond, is the work of National Geographic photographer Michael Melford and freelance writer Dave Atcheson, board president of the Renewable Resources Coalition in Alaska.
“The salmon are the heartbeat of the bay, both defining and supporting it,” writes Melford, in the book’s foreword. For centuries, he notes local Yupik and Aleut tribes have harvested, smoked and preserved salmon as their primary food for winter sustenance. Likewise the large brown bears, beluga whales and eagles depend on this harvest. “All this richness is possible only because the area of Bristol Bay has remained pristine and because the state’s Department of Fish and Game has put in place procedures that promote the sustainability of the fish population,” Melford said.
The large-scale mining project proposed in the region is “the classic question of what to do when the demands of capitalism and commercial gain come face-to-face with the needs for conservation and preservation: Which force will prevail is yet to be seen,” he said.
“If Alaska is a land of extremes, the Bristol Bay region might be called the land of extreme salmon,” writes Atcheson, a former commercial fisherman, and former employee of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “No other place on the planet sustains a fisheries resource quite as astounding as the sockeye and king salmon, and their supporting cast of silver, chum, and pink salmon, that make their epic journey here every year, sometimes hundreds of miles, to their natal streams. The lifeblood of the region, the salmon have fed the Native people for generations and today bolster the local economy to the tune of $350 million a year, he wrote.
Part of the reason for the strength and size of the Bristol Bay salmon runs is their genetic diversity, Atcheson notes. Over the past 10,000 years, individual stocks have adapted to individual streams, some spawning early, some late, and adapting to varied incubation temperatures, so that if one run doesn’t do well in a given year, others make up for it, for each is an essential component of a complex and healthy whole, he wrote.
The 156-page book contains a number of full-color photos of the Bristol Bay region, including commercial fisheries, landscapes and wildlife.