Wild salmon, the feverish soul of Alaska


Every year, when winter begins to retreat in the Far North, when the sun comes out of its long slumber, there is a lot to gain in Nenana. In the heart of the boreal forest, this town of 341 inhabitants located at the confluence of the Nenana and Tanana rivers is rarely talked about. Except for a few days a year, when feverish onlookers venture out onto the ice, at the foot of a funny black and white tripod that has become famous.

→ READ. Alaska, last human frontier, first climatic front (1/5).

The history books are discreet about Nenana. At most, they evoke Indian encampments, Athabascan populations who used to settle there in the spring to engage in hunting and fishing. The first relations with the outside world date from the XIXe century, with the visits of Russian trappers. But it was the discovery of gold 90 km away, towards Fairbanks, which was to change the situation at the beginning of the following century: to transport the nuggets, and the coal, towards Anchorage and its port, investors embarked on the construction of a railway line.

This ambitious project will be Nenana’s big business. The town will even see a president, William Harding, in 1923, present to greet the end of the work during an official ceremony. The most significant event, however, had already taken place a few years earlier – in 1917, as the men of the Alaska Railroad (ARR) waited for the Tanana River to thaw. They were bored stiff. Without running water, it is impossible to build the bridge and continue on the way. Idle, an idea occurred to them to make the wait exciting: to bet on the day and time of the debacle.

When the ice knell sounds …

A tradition was born. Because since then, and even when the world was on fire, Nenana has continued to attract punters. The matter is serious, and precise: to determine the exact moment of the melting, a tripod is set up on the still river, holding a central stake driven into the frozen layer. This mechanism is connected by a rope to a bell, which rings at the precise moment when the ice gives way and the stake sinks into the water. Bettors must decide before April 5 at midnight, and pay a modest stake of 2.5 dollars (2 €). Each year, 275,000 tickets are sold. The game is worth the candle: last April, twelve winners shared more than 233,000 dollars (198,000 €) when the death knell for the ice came.

If this tradition is the joy of players, it also – which was not expected – that of scientists. Because without knowing it, the workers of the ARR inaugurated in 1917 a formidable marker of climate change. “No external factor (dam, etc.) has changed the conditions of the river, and the tripod is always installed in the same place, about a hundred meters from the shore”, specify the advertising brochures. Experts have therefore had an uninterrupted database for more than a century. A precious piece of information in this great wild and empty space that is Alaska, where precise and old weather data is scarce.

And the “Nenana Ice Classic” gives a fairly precise idea of ​​the warming in the region. Since 1917, the ice has broken between April 14 and May 20 of each year. But since the turn of the century, the Nanana bell has only very rarely sounded beyond the 1er may. In 2019, she was even heard from April 14 – never seen before. The previous precocity record – April 20 (in 1940 and 1998) – was gleefully broken.

The salmon, the wild symbol of Alaska

Important for punters, this trend is very bad news for anglers. Especially for fishermen of wild Pacific salmon, one of the last on the planet. This salmon is even multiple: there are no less than five different species, as no one ignores in Alaska. To any lord all honor: first there is the king, taller, richer, who measures nearly a meter, for 15 kg. But the coho, chum, pink and sockeye cousins ​​also delight fishermen and palates. Some prefer the flesh of the king, which is fatter, others that of the coho, which is finer. Tastes vary. But in Alaska, the salmon respect itself. The idea of ​​preparing it in a hurry in the microwave startles the locals …

In Alaska, fish are everywhere. Even in town: you can fish a stone’s throw from downtown Anchorage, in the river that runs just behind the station. During the summer season, there are always dozens of fishermen with their feet firmly planted in the water, dreaming with open eyes of king and coho. On the small bridge that spans the stream, a table equipped with a powerful water jet allows happy fishermen to clean their catch. Under the admiring or jealous gaze of the curious.

Wild salmon, the feverish soul of Alaska

In the Far North, salmon are even in the sky. The regional airline, Alaska Airlines, has several aircraft whose cabin is covered, from the tail to the cockpit, with the paint of a magnificent king. In May, the first cargo flight of the season arriving in Seattle from Anchorage is always the occasion of a commercial and media operation, with a red carpet. Several tons of fish are unloaded, and the pilots, leather jacket and cap, take the break by showing off a fish with the pride of an Ernest Hemingway fisherman in Cuba.

Fewer and smaller salmon

Charlie Wright has fun. But for him, an Athabascan Indian, salmon is sacred. He was born in Rampart, on the Yukon River, at the end of the 1970s. He is a trapper, a hunter, a fisherman. He leads an old-fashioned life, brought up to date, with a snowmobile and modern rifle. He has always lived on the river and his observation is bitter. “There are fewer and fewer salmon in the rivers, and the ones we catch are smaller, he recounts. There are probably a lot of reasons for this. But one of them is undoubtedly the rise in the temperature of the water. Three years ago she was so hot she was killing fish! “

A study from the University of Fairbanks confirmed this finding last year by analyzing data from the past six decades. The fish are getting smaller and smaller, and the phenomenon has accelerated since 2010. The king, in particular, has lost 8% since 1990.

To stop this decline, Charlie Wright had publicly supported, in 2018, a bill providing for new measures to protect salmon (restrictions for mining projects, dams, etc.). “Salmon supports more than 32,000 people and generates $ 2 billion in revenue for Alaska”, underlining the supporters of the “Stand for Salmon” initiative, worried that the region’s symbolic fish will one day disappear from the rivers. Millions of dollars had been spent in a tense referendum campaign, and the project had been rescinded. Much to the chagrin of Charlie Wright. “In our Indian culture, salmon is central, he insists. For our subsistence first, but also for our culture. As children, it is in the camps established for fishing that we learn our values ​​from the elders. The first fish caught must always be given to an elder. “

An essential fish for everyone in Alaska

Pink-fleshed fish are also essential for whites. There are two things that, at least symbolically, belong to all residents of Alaska: Oil, first – every year a check for several hundred dollars is sent to every inhabitant, including children, redistributed listed. in the Constitution of this petroleum state; salmon, then, that everyone has the right to fish with an upper limit than that of non-residents.

→ READ. BP oil tanker withdraws from Alaska

“Salmon is a unifying element in Alaska”, explains Micah Hahn, a teacher at Anchorage University. Her husband is a fisherman, and the couple have started a small business. “This activity is highly regulated to avoid overfishing, she specifies. During the season, the authorities establish precisely, day by day, the hours of fishing and the catch limits, according to the precise data available to them, thanks to sensors installed in the rivers. ” Precision and regulation are increasingly essential, as the temperature rises in the rivers where salmon emerge and return to spawn. According to the latest data from the Alaska Fisheries Authority, this year will not be a good year for Charlie Wright’s King in the Yukon.

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A hotspot for world fishing

The number of different fish species that frequent Alaskan waters is estimated to be over 600. Fishing in the region, particularly in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea, is considered to be one of the most important. rich in the world.

But climate change has already had an impact on many fish (salmon, char, etc.) due to rising temperatures, acidification of the oceans, etc.

Some species migrate northward in Alaska in search of cooler waters. In the Bering Sea, for example, we observe that halibut, hake and snow crab have moved away from the coast since the early 1980s.

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