UTKHOLOK RIVER BIOLOGICAL STATION, Russia The wild salmon still rush the dark Utkholok and other rivers on Kamchatka, one of the last salmon strongholds on earth. They surge in spring and pulse in for months, often side by side in run after run.
All six native species of Pacific salmon remain abundant on this eastern Russian peninsula, scientists say, appearing by the tens of millions to spawn in its free-running watersheds. Even in the chill of October they come: coho and a trickle of sockeye, mixed with sea-run trout and char.
Now, in a country with a dreary environmental record that is engaged in a rush to extract its resources, the peninsula’s governments are at work on proposals that would designate seven sprawling tracts of wilderness as protected areas for salmon, a network of refuges for highly valuable fish that would be the first of its kind.
Encompassing nine entire rivers and 2.4 million hectares, or more than six million acres, the protected watersheds would exceed the scale of many renowned preserved areas in the United States. Together they would be more than twice the size of Yellowstone National Park in the United States.
These areas would be protected from most development, the government of Kamchatka says. Their purpose would be to produce wild salmon – for food, profit, recreation and scientific study, and as a genetic reserve of one of the world’s most commercially and culturally important fish.
If approved, the plans would push Russia toward the center of international efforts to prevent the remaining wild Pacific salmon stocks from suffering the declines and population crashes that have beset sturgeon, bluefin tuna and the Atlantic’s salmon, halibut and cod.
“Having weighed everything from the perspective of the economy, I have convinced myself that we have to have a different future, and that salmon must be allowed to return to spawn,” said Aleksandr Chistyakov, Kamchatka’s first deputy governor, during an interview in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the region’s capital.
Chistyakov said Kamchatka was selecting protection zones not to create wildlife reserves but because fish runs are the best foundation for the peninsula’s economy. Oil, natural gas and mining sectors will be developed, he said, but will provide a comparably brief revenue stream. Sustainable fishing, he said, can last generations.
The government’s position, set forth in documents in late August, has surprised even scientists and conservationists who have lobbied to protect habitat from the development pressures of post-Soviet Russia.
“This initiative is magnificent,” said Dmitrij Pavlov, director of the A.N. Severtzov Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences, during an interview at this biological station. “It is important not only for people who live today, for contemporary people, but for future generations.”
Andrei Klimenko, a director at the Wild Salmon Center, an Oregon-based organization working internationally to conserve salmon runs, said the proposal could become a milestone in the management of a beleaguered resource. “It will be a precedent,” he said. “There is nothing else like this anywhere else.”
Each year, Russian and American scientists say, from a sixth to a quarter of the North Pacific’s salmon originate from Kamchatka, a peninsula about the size of California.
Its endurance as an engine of sea life falls from geography and politics.
Until 15 years ago it was a closed Soviet military zone, untouched and almost without roads. Today it remains a remote region of volcanoes and glaciers, ringed by forested slopes and tundra laced with aquatic habitats where salmon spawn and their young grow.
Since Soviet authority evaporated, however, Kamchatka has faced intensifying pressures. Prospecting has begun, mines have been dug, roads have been cut and poaching – from subsistence harvests to industrial-scale egg-stripping of salmon for caviar – has become nearly unchecked. There are plans to develop oil and natural gas wells offshore.
A few of the peninsula’s salmon rivers are already depleted; others are at risk.
“We face a choice,” said Olga Chernyagina, president of the Kamchatka League of Independent Experts, a Russian conservation group. “Will there be salmon, or not?”
Estimates of the salmon fisheries’ annual value range to $600 million, and Kamchatka’s sea-run fish and their briny bright-red eggs are an important source of protein and employment for Russia and other countries.
Chistyakov said that Kamchatka’s wild state was its best asset and that the rivers slated for protection were among its richest in fish yield and diversity. Jack Stanford, an ecology professor at the University of Montana and adviser to the Wild Salmon Center, who with Moscow State University has helped direct research at biological stations on Kamchatka, agreed.
One river, the Kol, he said, has as many as five million returning salmon each year. “It has fish coming in from ice to ice,” he said. “It’s an amazing place.”
A recent tour of two rivers selected for protection, and helicopter flights over five others, showed a verdant wilderness.
Undammed rivers fall from mountains and meander through tundra, creating networks of lakes and side- channels, dense plant communities and flood plains fertilized by decaying fish. Brown bears abound. Rare birds, including massive Steller’s sea eagles, are a daily sight. At the Kol’s mouth, where river meets surf, dozens of seals ambush passing fish.
But in places the banks are trampled by poachers and their camps. Treads from their all-terrain vehicles have cut scars in the tundra.
The efforts to create salmon refuges formally began in 2001 when Kamchatka’s administration, which governs the southern part of the peninsula, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Wild Fishes and Biodiversity Foundation, a local conservation group, proposing the contiguous Kol and Kekhta basins as a protected zone. Later, the Koryak Autonomous Okrug, which governs the peninsula’s northern section, accepted a proposal to protect the contiguous Utkholok and Kvachina basins.
“What makes this special is that these rivers are being protected while they are still amazing fish producers,” Klimenko said.
“To preserve something that is not destroyed is much less expensive than restoring an ecosystem that is already broken.” International Herald Tribune