It is July, the peak of summer on Kodiak Island, and salmon are returning in their millions to the island’s rivers, and to the prince of Kodiak’s rivers, the Karluk, on the southwest coast of the island. Like many Kodiak rivers, the Karluk River system supports all five species of salmon native to Alaska- pinks, chums, silvers, kings and sockeyes, but it is the sockeye, the red salmon, which have made the Karluk arguably the greatest salmon river in the world.
|Sockeye, or red, salmon|
The word “Karluk,” is itself derived from the Alutiiq word for salmon, “Iqaluk,” and these noble fish have been spawning in the Karluk since the retreat of the last ice age glaciers about 8,000 years ago. Archeological evidence indicates the first humans on Kodiak arrived not long after the ice went away, in skin boats from Asia by way of the Aleutians and the western Alaska coast. As evidenced by their hunting tools found near the mouth of the Karluk, these immigrants focused their food gathering efforts on the hunting of marine mammals, but as subsequent cultures evolved on Kodiak, the focus of their diet changed from seals, sea lions, and the occasional whale, to salmon.
Sockeye swim into the Karluk for six months, beginning in May, peaking in late summer, and still coming in decreasing numbers well into the fall, with stragglers as late as December. This easily obtained protein source, available fresh for half the year and handily converted to dried salmon for the fishless winter and spring months, allowed the Alutiiq people and their ancestors to divert a substantial portion of their time and energy from food gathering to the pursuit of high culture. All summer they caught salmon with nets in the lagoon at the mouth of the river and in v-shaped stone weirs they built in the river itself, which forced the salmon to pass through narrow apertures where they could be speared or driven into woven basket weirs. By the time the Russians arrived in the late 18th century, the Alutiiq at Karluk had developed a society rich in politics, art, and religion, all made possible by the easy availability of the king of fish.
The Russians of course were single-mindedly obsessed with the gathering of sea otter skins, not salmon, and despite their need for cash, viewed the fish almost exclusively as a food source for themselves and their coerced Alutiiq hunters, not as a source of capitalist wealth. While there is evidence the Russians sold some dried and salted salmon from Karluk to markets in California, they never exploited the incredible resource of the river’s sockeye run to its full potential.
Historians have long conjectured on what might have been if the technology of the hermetically sealed tin can had become available to the Russian American Company in those last years of their Alaskan venture, when the sea otters had run out and the colony was bleeding money. Instead, in 1867, ten years after the Hume Brothers began canning salmon on the Sacramento River, the Czar sold Alaska to the Americans. By the early 1870s, having already fished out the rivers in California, Yankees began canning salmon in Southeast Alaska, and in 1882 built the first cannery on Karluk Spit, where the river emptied into Shelikof Strait.
|Salmon canneries at the Karluk River, 1880s.|
For five years it was the only cannery at Karluk, but within a few years the spit was covered with other wooden cannery buildings, net warehouses, workshops and housing for the seasonal workers. The money to build the canneries came from San Francisco and New York, the fishermen were mainly working class Americans and recent European immigrants, and the cannery workers were Chinese. The local Alutiiq found their livelihoods where they could in this newly arrived industrial scene, as cannery workers or as fishermen working for the canneries.
In these first years of the canning industry at Karluk the extravagant wealth which might be taken from the river became apparent to the American capitalists. In 1882, 58,000 salmon were canned at Karluk, in 1887 a million, and for several years in the 1890s, more than three million fish a year were commercially harvested and canned at Karluk. The largest Karluk harvest ever was in 1901, when 4 million sockeye were caught and canned, and the largest escapement was in 1926, when 2.5 million fish made it past fishermen’s nets into the lake. (This number must be qualified by the fact that escapement was not measured at Karluk before 1920) The run declined from there, unsteadily, with good years and bad, but trending always downwards, until the nadir of the Karluk fishery in 1955, when fewer than 30,000 sockeye were caught.
|Beach seining at Karluk, 1960s|
Until the 1940s the fish were mainly caught with beach seines, some as long as 300 fathoms- 1,800 feet. One end of the net was anchored to the beach on the spit and the other end was towed out into the water with a steam launch, around the schools of salmon, and back to the beach, at which point the fish were loaded into carts and rolled directly into the canneries. It was a very efficient system. After the Second World War beach seines were gradually replaced with seines deployed from boats- the same kind of net, except a boat held both ends of it, which allowed fish further from shore to be captured. Fishing went on six days a week, and each year’s management of the fishery was decided in a smoky room in Seattle by cannery owners and Federal fisheries managers. Concern for the future of the run was trumped by the desire for profit.
And then in 1959 Alaska became a state, and as our local narrative has it, with the end of 80 years of cannery influenced management, the hiring a young cohort of Alaska Department of Fish and Game fish managers, and decisions based on the best available science, the salmon runs were saved. The Karluk sockeye run has been rebuilt, though not to historic levels. After a few bad years around 2010, the run this year is healthy again, with about 200,000 sockeye having escaped up river past fishermen’s nets so far this season, and 150,000 sockeye harvested.
Kodiak salmon, and especially the Karluk sockeye, have been lucky in their choice of spawning habitat. In recent years it has become apparent to fisheries scientists that rearing habitat is the single most important factor in the health of a salmon run. This would explain why hatcheries, fishing reduction, and even the elimination of fishing altogether, cannot always save a salmon run which has no clean place to mate and lay its eggs. The placing of thousands of small streams around Puget Sound into culverts since the 1960s has been blamed for the decline of a once massive silver salmon resource there, and the threat of mines in the watershed of Bristol Bay looms as an existential threat to that fishery. But with neither an encroaching population nor mineral wealth, managers and fishermen on Kodiak are cautiously hopeful that, barring unforeseen effects from climate change, salmon will live here forever.