Fishing for Science in Kamchatka
Rivers and fish have been in steady decline in the United States for more than a hundred years. There are only a few rivers left that haven't been altered by dams, irrigation projects and hatcheries, and there's little memory of what these places once looked like and how they worked.
For National Geographic's Radio Expeditions, NPR's Elizabeth Arnold ventured to Russia's Far East for a glimpse into the past. There, on the Kamchatka Peninsula, fishermen and scientists are trying to understand and protect one of the world's last remaining strongholds of wild salmon, steelhead and char.
The Kamchatka Peninsula was once a Cold War listening post, used by Russia to spy on Alaska. The evidence is everywhere, from abandoned radio towers and cracked concrete runways, to overgrown earthen bunkers and the rusted hulks of spy planes.
Geographically remote and sealed off for 65 years, the landscape is without dams, logging or agriculture. Its 800-mile coastline has seen little economic development. Instead of industrial complexes, farms or blocks of housing, a helicopter fly-over reveals snow-rimmed volcanoes that give way to slopes of birch and tamarack and broad valleys partitioned by rivers that twist like ribbons.
A group of American conservationists seized on this wilderness a decade ago to set up a Russian-American partnership called the Wild Salmon Center. The center mixes sport fishing with research. American anglers pay top dollar to fish in Kamchatka. Their money and their catch goes to science.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the bottom fell out for funding research, says Guido Rahr, president of the Wild Salmon Center. "We approached the Russians and said listen, 'If you take us to these rivers and let us catch and release these fish, we’ll support your science,' " he says. "The idea is not just to show them that angling tourism can work, but to try to reinvent sport fishing in such a way that it not only creates local jobs, but it also generates data for the scientists."
Rahr's organization is dedicated to protecting wild salmon, steelhead, char and trout. After years of heading up restoration efforts in the Pacific Northwest that were too little and too late, he's now focused on rivers that he believes can still be saved.
"What I hear a lot is, 'We need to restore our own fish, why are you going all the way over to Russia to help them with their fish?' " says Rahr. "The bottom line is, if you really want to win, you want something to be here in 10,000 years, you've got to think way beyond our national border, you have to think at a global level. We've got to protect and restore our own backyards, that's for sure, but we've gotta get ahead of the extinction curve of those last places while we still can."
The Radio Expeditions team visited a makeshift camp on the Sopochnaya River in Kamchatka. The river has nine species of salmonids, and scientists are studying the life history of each and how they intermingle and relate to particular environments. The 1,000-mile-long peninsula produces nearly 25 percent of the world's wild Pacific salmon, and is home to Russia's only population of steelhead, an endangered species.
"We have this unique chance because everything here is pristine," says Kirill Kuzishchin, a professor of ichthyology at Moscow State University. "Fish is pristine, environment is pristine. We can monitor all the processes that are going on in nature."
Over the last two field seasons, 15 different rivers in Kamchatka have been assessed by a half-dozen Russian and American scientists. And in the water, catching the fish with the scientists, are fishermen out for sport.
"The best way to show people, convince them this is an important place to protect is to get them waist-deep in the river," says Rahr, "preferably connected to a great big chrome steelhead that’s pulling his line all the way out and is around the next bend somersaulting in the air."
The angling tourism and the research camps are a boost to the local economy, which has become dependent on caviar poaching, a threat to these very fish since their eggs are at stake.
There are other looming threats. The once-isolated place is now in the sights of mining, oil and natural gas interests. Rahr's hope is to encourage Russians to protect the rivers of Kamchatka, while there is still time. It's both an ambitious and delicate task.
Especially in someone else's country.
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