There is something in the air in Alaska. Or perhaps more appropriately on the Kenai Peninsula, there is something in the water. Having just returned from a week on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, I have gained an incredible education in what a love for one of nature’s creatures can do for an area. I sit now yearning for Kenai in the early morning, where I sat sipping my cup of coffee as I watched my uncle preparing his boat and tackle box. Seagulls and eagles shimmied for their spots along the bank’s high grasses, as the other early-rising anglers head out with their nets and fishing poles, hopeful and anxious over what the river may hold for them today. Each mind’s eye focused on one thing as the tide rises on Alaska’s Kenai River: The Alaskan King.
The Plight of the Kings
For all of its beauty and small town charm, just one thing drives this towns popularity and notoriety every summer. Nothing happens here that is not tied to the river and more importantly, what the river holds: salmon. And not just any salmon (as I quickly learned), but a vast array of some the most delicious and highly regarded fish in the world. Every year, thousands of people descend upon the Peninsula to witness the yearly runs of Dog Salmon, Reds, Silvers, and every other year, a run of Pinks, not to mention the bottom-feeding Halibut. But there is one fish that is most prized, most anticipated, and most talked about on the banks of the Kenai, and that is the Alaskan King Salmon. Aptly named, this king of fish has a reign far reaching beyond that of the river. Anglers the world over flock to this little town 200 miles south of Anchorage every July in the hopes of reeling in royalty.
Why is this one fish so regarded? What about this salmon could cause such an obsession with fisherman, such a lust for fish that the state has to control the amount of fish each person can catch? For one, the King Salmon, or Chinook Salmon as its official name, is the largest of the Pacific variety and is native to the Pacific from California to Alaska. It’s flesh is known to be the most delicious of all salmon, and has been celebrated throughout history for its nutritional qualities. The first Chinook catch each season is celebrated by the Native American tribes of the Peninsula and the Pacific Northwest, as well as by the sportfishing industry and amateur anglers alike. Its imagery is everywhere, so much so that the Kings are even the state fish of Alaska and of Oregon. The King truly does rule this cold, beautiful country.
But with some much cultural and spiritual importance, it seems inevitable that these fish would be in danger. And that is exactly what has happened. Overfishing of the Alaska King has lead to devastating drops in populations throughout the Pacific. Commercial fisherman and sportfishing alike has been to blame, but thankfully conservation groups have come to the rescue. The King’s popularity has actually proven to be both a blessing and a curse, as its popularity led to its steep decline, it has also garnished enormous attention and uproar from those who spend their lives on the river’s banks and cannot picture a life in which the yearly king salmon run does not exist.
A prime example of such a group in the Kenai Sportfishing Association, which holds both a love of these fish and also a respect for them. The group has been an advocate for conservation efforts including habitat restoration and commercial fishing restrictions for more than 20 years, and now Alaska King salmon populations are recovering and even considered healthy by many.
As with any conservation effort, it takes time, energy, and awareness to save a species, but most importantly it takes a love and respect for nature and what she provides. The fisherman of the Kenai have such a respect for their Kings. Yes, they fish them. But all the talk I heard while on the river and in the town was focused on how beautiful and special these creatures are. There was love and admiration in the voices of the fisherman when they described the yearly runs of the salmon, and the stamina and courage it takes for these fish to return each year. Every time the conversation turned to the King (as most conversations inevitably did), the tone was one of amazement and honor of what the fish accomplish and the beauty they embody. Each fisherman I met revered the fish as if it was truly royalty, bowing down to the King’s strength and majesty. The Kenai is the kingdom of the King, in which its image graces every home and business, and its name is spoken with honor and pride. Such a population will not obliterate its ruler, and this is why I have confidence in the King’s return and security.
All in all, Kenai left me feeling hopeful. Such passion for an animal I have rarely seen these days outside of my vegan friends and animal rights groups. It was encouraging to witness what a love for one of nature’s unique creatures can do in its preservation. If such commitment can be put towards other fishing populations or endangered species, I have no doubt their populations can be restored as well.
Also, and perhaps surprisingly, I walked away humbled. I entered as a vegan who did not want to partake in any fishing activities. I was ready to judge and be upset by what I imagined as a hopeless disregard for the life of the fish by those who hunted them. What I found was just the opposite. I found people who love these fish, but more importantly respect them. The anglers of Alaska are like the tribes of old, who worshiped the animals that their lives depended on and lived with the animals instead of against them. I am proud of my uncle, Ron Rainey, as president of the Kenai Sportfishing Association, for he embodies this love of the King and passion for its conservation. Turns out, you don’t have to be vegan to be an honorable animal lover. And I am happy to have been proven wrong.