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Here in the southwest corner of Alaska known as Bristol Bay, in a region about the size of the state of Washington brimming with freshwater lakes and streams, exists one of earth's grandest and most spectacular wildlife pagents—one whose numbers exceed the past great migrations of bison and passenger pigeons, and which, in the short history of humankind, has proven far more important.

As their ancestors have done for countless millennia before them, these young salmon will grow and mature over the next few years, descend freshwater streams to the sea, travel over one thousand miles throughout the North Pacific Ocean, then return with remarkable timing and precision to ascend, spawn, and die in the waters of their birth.

Although the journey of salmon is a well-known phenomenon, what isn't widely acknowledged is that Pacific salmon have disappeared from 40 percent of their original range, and their survival is at risk in another 27 percent. In Alaska's Bristol Bay—home to the world's greatest wild sockeye salmon population—they still occur in numbers almost beyond belief, both humbling and stirring human imagination.

During the Pacific Northwest's heyday of the 1800s, before dams, erosion, pollution, and overfishing destroyed its fishery, the bountiful Columbia River Basin produced about 16 million salmon each year. As recently as 1995, nearly four times that number—62 million salmon—returned to Bristol Bay. Stacked nose to tail, that many fish would stretch all the way around the earth at its equator. They would weigh more than one thousand blue whales.

How this corner of Alaska came to be home to the world's greatest wild salmon fishery is the story of a unique freshwater landscape closely tied both to the sea and the land's denizens—wildlife and people; a landscape whose continued existence depends upon a healthy and viable salmon fishery.

"The salmon is the sea's silver messenger," a Yup'ik woman once said. "It says to all of us who live here: 'Never forget who gives you life.'"