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Our Past and Future

The First Inhabitants
The vast waterlands of Southwest Alaska formed in the final glacial retreat of the Pleistocene era about 12,000 years ago. Salmon, spreading eastward from Asia as sea levels rose, soon moved into nearly every body of water flowing seaward from the Alaskan mountains. On the tails of fish came early humans, migrating also from Asia. What they found in this salmon-based ecosystem of the Nushagak River and surrounding coastline was more hospitable than the harsh frozen landscape of their Beringia homeland. They soon settled and the Yup'ik Eskimos who occupied the region at the time of contact with Western explorers are their descendents.

The Real People
The Nushagak River and Bristol Bay basin of Southwest Alaska are the southern extent of Eskimo culture that depended upon fish and marine mammals and once occupied the Russian Far East across the top of North America to Greenland. The Yup'ik (translated as "real" or "genuine" person) date back about 3500 years in Bristol Bay and today many native people still depend upon a subsistence livelihood, hunting walrus, seal and beluga along the coast, while inland hunters utilize caribou and moose. But salmon, particularly red or sockeye salmon—which occur in greater numbers here than anywhere on earth—are the keystone species upon which this incredibly rich ecosystem depends.

copyright Tim TrollA Salmon Country Unequaled
Russians first arrived in the region in 1818, but it wasn't until America purchased Alaska in 1867 that enterprising Americans saw potential for profit in the immense salmon runs. In summer 1884, the first commercial cannery was built at the mouth of the Nushagak near present-day Dillingham. The mother lode of salmon had been struck. By the early 1900s, fishermen sailed two-man drift gillnetters in grueling and dangerous conditions to net countless millions of salmon. In turn, canneries became all-powerful conglomerates whose chokehold on Alaska became the prime impetus for statehood in 1959. Today, commercial salmon fishing faces increased economic pressure from over-capitalization, tempestuous market conditions, and the worldwide farmed salmon industry—conditions that threaten the economic livelihood of area residents, and ultimately threaten the stability of this complex ecosystem.

copyright Robert Glenn KetchumThe Future
Southwest Alaska's salmon populations have waxed and waned over the past century, and although science and past conservation have contributed greatly to our knowledge of the species, much is still unknown about salmon population dynamics. One thing, however, seems certain. The fate of the great runs of salmon are intimately dependent upon their rich environment and human willingness to protect it in perpetuity. Together, humans and salmon share both past and future of one of the last great wild fisheries on earth.