National Geographic : 2009 Aug
"Twenty years ago I remember lots of fish coming to this river," she told me, through a translator, on a crisp summer day, as we stood near her sh traps in a little tributary. ose traps were the end point for spawn-ready adults whose eggs and sperm would fuel the hatch- ing and rearing operations of the hatchery. "A variety of species," Sakharovskaya said. "Now I don t see them." e decline in the run of chinook, Oncorhyn- chus tshawytscha, has been especially severe, she said. ese are deep-bodied and silvery crea- tures with purplish dorsal markings, largest of all salmon species, and therefore sometimes known as king salmon. Once they came in great, regal herds. Nowadays the Malki hatchery releases 850,000 chinook fry (as well as a lesser number of sockeye) annually, but not many adults return. What stops them? Two kinds of illegal harvest: overcatching (perelov is the Russian word) by licensed companies that have catch quotas but exceed them with impunity, and poaching by individuals or small crews, mostly for caviar, at concealed spots along the river. e poaching problem throughout Kam- chatka is catastrophic in scale, totaling at least 120 million pounds of salmon annually, much of it controlled by criminal syndicates. A hatchery director can t x that problem, Sakharovskaya noted, and the regulatory authorities evidently don t have the resources or the resolve to do it. So only the luckiest and most elusive of chinook reach their destiny here along the Bystraya. "We can almost count them on ngers," she said. is only one of many river systems on the peninsula, and its hatchery sh aren t representative of Kamchatka PERESTROIKA, THE COLLAPSE OF THE STATE, AND ORGIASTIC PRIVATIZATION DISPOSSESSED THE NATIVE PEOPLE OF LANDS, WATERS, AND LIVING RESOURCES. fast growth. Approaching sexual maturity, the sh will head homeward to spawn, using some combination of magnetic sensing and polar- ized light to nd its way back to the Bolshaya River. From the estuary it will ascend upstream by smell, branching into the familiar Bystraya, and nally climbing through the same shallow ri es of the same smaller tributary that its par- ents ascended before it. ousands of eggs will be laid for every two adult sh that return. Unlike an Atlantic salm- on or most other species of vertebrate, a Paci c salmon breeds once and then dies. Scientists call the phenomenon semelparity. For the rest of us: big-bang reproduction. A er the adult has homed to its spawning stream, death follows sex as inexorably as digestion follows a meal. It s a life-history strategy, shaped by evolution over millions of years, that balances the costs of each spawning journey against the costs of reproductive e ort, toward the goal of maxi- mizing reproductive success. In plainer words: Since the likelihood of any sh surviving the whole journey not just once but twice is so slim, Pacific salmon exhaust themselves fatally--- they breed themselves to death---at the first opportunity they get. Why hold back anything if you ll never have another chance? So their lives enact a romantic but pitiless narrative. eir success rate is low, even under optimal circumstances. e miracle of salmon is that any of them manage to complete such an arduous cycle at all. And present circumstances on the Bolshaya River and its tributaries--- though the wall poster at Malki didn t say so ---are far from optimal. , director of the Malki hatchery, is a sweet-spirited woman with blond hair and silver glasses who has worked there since the early 1980s. She trained as a biol- ogist in Irkutsk, a warmish city in south-central Siberia, before moving east to this severe out- post in search of a better livelihood. For almost three decades she has watched---she has lived, like a doting nanny---the cycles of salmon rear- ing, release, and return.