Kamchatka, Russia | Where the Salmon Rule, National Geographic MagazineBy Randy Olson
This is a story about fish and the social fabric that exists around the last salmon stronghold on the planet. The Kamchatka shelf is the only place where all seven species of Oncorhynchus Salmon can be found.
Kamchatka is a narrow peninsula in the Russian Far East bordered to the east by the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk to the west. Salmon have been protected in Kamchatka by the simple difficulty of getting anywhere near their runs. For 137 species salmon is a main diet staple.
The salmon migration is one of the last great migrations that shapes the food supply and activities of many other species, including humans. Salmon bring marine-derived nutrients from the Kamchatka shelf in the Sea of Okhotsk into the eight major river systems that run off the middle range of mountains that divide Kamchatka in half.
When salmon die they fertilize the entire Pacific Rim. Warm waters from volcanic systems within with the coldest sea in the Pacific Rim create an ideal, nutrient-rich environment. And the river systems—some of the last braided streams on Earth that have not yet been constrained by agriculture—are vital habitat for salmon.
The biggest threat to salmon in Russia is poaching. There are four anti-poaching wardens who are responsible for all eight river systems. Commercial fishing is allowed to take about 40 percent of the salmon run every year; poachers take about the same amount. This happens because enforcement is basically non-existent. Even in the best place for salmon in the world, not so many get through to spawn. But with a new government in place that is primarily concerned with resource extraction, things are going to get much worse for these people. Soon, an oil and natural gas pipeline will cut through the marine environment, across the shelf and through many of the salmon rivers in the country. This will destroy river environments and open up access roads for more poaching. The new government in Kamchatka is willing to risk the salmon fisheries, which generate 30 percent of all the fish caught in Russia and 40 percent of the income, for a fraction of the natural gas and oil that exists in plentiful amounts elsewhere in Russia.
If you fly by MI-8 helicopter to Khailino in the far north you will find indigenous Koryak people and white Russians who came here to get “Northern money” when the Soviet Union wanted to tame these areas that were technically war zones with the United States. Salaries were up to eight times what a similar job would pay in Moscow, so the smart ones figured out how to get all the necessary permits to work in these areas. After the Russian government devalued the ruble, and defaulted on debt, no one in these remote outposts got any salaries. They had to figure out how to make a living off salmon caviar and create fishing brigades and distribution systems in a place that can drop to –40° in the winter. In a very small community where everyone works hard to merely survive, you have to be kind to each other and work in community. There is easy mixing between indigenous Koryak and Russians to this day. The state salaries are dribbling in for the Russians now, and the Koryak still fish all summer to have food to last through the harsh winter. Russian and Koryak intermarry and work side by side in the fishing camps.
These photographs ran in National Geographic Magazine in August 2009. I’ve decided to post these stories with the same content and in the same order as they were shown to the editors – in what we used to call a tray. The “tray” is the major effort behind a story and it gets cut down to only a few photographs that end up in the magazine.