The first salmon

Posted: Friday, May 20, 2011

Last Saturday, I was waiting in the parking lot of a closed Sterling business to rendezvous with a friend who had a piece of fresh salmon he wanted to give me. Having eaten nothing but frozen fish for the past seven months, I took care to arrive before he did.

The business where I was parked, closed and for sale for several months, is just one of a long string that have opened and closed in Sterling. It's tough to keep the lights on all year when most of the action happens in a three- or four-month tourist season. Anyhow, I'm sitting there, thinking about how the state of the national economy and the price of gasoline might affect this year's run of tourists, when a thought occurred to me: Regardless of the economy and gas prices, the salmon will return.

About that time, my friend arrived, proving my point. I shared his gift of the year's first salmon with an another friend that night.

The first salmon of the year -- always king salmon -- mean a great deal to me, and to many others. If you've ever lived through the seemingly endless months of winter without salmon in the streams, and then watched the king salmon return in the spring, you can't help but feel a connection with these fish. Their yearly return is a reminder that salmon and humans alike are connected in a great web of life.

Wherever salmon are found, the first of the season has always had special significance. In Canadian researcher Hillary Stewart's book, "Indian Fishing: Early methods on the Northwest Coast," she wrote: "Sustenance for most of the people of the Northwest Coast was dependent on the return of the migrating species of salmon, and there were prayers said on the occasion of catching the first of the season, or of the run. The 'First Salmon Ceremony' was a ritual of reverence and respect expressed in many different ways. Some people had a ceremony for the first of each species to be caught, some for just the first of the season; with some it was a family ceremony, with others the whole village participated."

Our joy in celebrating the return of king salmon should be tempered by the knowledge that the fish might not return, or that we might not be able to harvest them. In February 2002, the Alaska Board of Fisheries voted to reduce the harvest of early-run Kenai River king salmon with catch-and-release-only regulations. Hailed by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and the Kenai River Professional Guide Association as a way to stabilize the fishery, it was one of the most controversial actions the board has ever taken. Thirteen months later the board reversed its action, but waves generated by the fierce storm of public outrage continue to this day.

If the Alaska Board of Fisheries ever again considers converting a salmon harvest fishery to catch-and-release fishing, board members should pause and remember the First Salmon Ceremony. That one fish can elicit so much reverence is not something to take lightly.

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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