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Celebrating the Return of Wild Salmon: A Q&A with Lisa Busch

Much More Than a Food

    This time of year, the salmon begin to migrate from the open ocean toward the coast to begin their journey up freshwater forest streams to spawn (lay their eggs). Salmon are anadromous, which means that they begin their life in freshwater, but transition to live their adult life in salt water before returning to their natal stream to die. The return of these salmon brings them close to our Alaskan shores and as they stock up on food for their journey upstream, it provides our fishermen an opportunity to catch some of these delicious fish for your freezer.

    A longtime Alaskan and former science journalist, Lisa Busch is now the Executive Director at the Sitka Sound Science Center (SSSC), a local non-profit working in both research and science education. We sat down recently in her SSSC office to discuss the return of the salmon and what it means for the broader community here in Sitka.

    EB: Could you introduce yourself to our members?

    LB: I'm Lisa Busch, the executive director of the Sitka Sound Science Center. I've been in Sitka for 35 years, and I work for a nonprofit that I absolutely adore.

    EB: Our members love to read about Sitka, and learn about the salmon in their box. You and your staff at the Sitka Sound Science Center work to educate people from around the globe about salmon and the salmon life cycle.

    What is the salmon life cycle?

    LB: So the salmon life cycle is amazing. It is one of the great miracles on the planet. Salmon start out in fresh water in a crystal clear stream where they lay their eggs. And then the eggs are fertilized. There, the eggs hatch out and the little salmon spend part of their lives in fresh water. It depends on the species how long they spend in fresh water, but they eventually head out into the open ocean, where they spend anywhere between a year and seven years. Then they find their way back to the original stream where they came from. They swim upstream, lay their eggs, the eggs are fertilized, and then all of the salmon die. And the whole thing starts over again.

    EB: What's so amazing, too, is some of the questions that we still don't have answers for that part of the process. Such as, how do fish know where their natal stream is? How is it that anadromous fish developed this amazing ability? There's still so many interesting questions to explore, and that excites us every single fall when we see the salmon come back.

    LB: Yeah, one thing I really get a kick out of is when visitors are here when the salmon are coming upstream, and you see how excited they are. But you know, there are places around town, like right out here in front of the Science Center, where people stand and watch the salmon returning. And often it's not just the visitors; it’s also the people who live here. I mean, I've been here 35 years, I just can't get over how amazing it is. How do they find their way back? How do they swim upstream for so long?

    A spawned out keta salmon decays on the edge of a stream. Its carcass introduces important nutrients, such as nitrogen, into the riparian ecosystem. Photo by Emma Bruhl.

    EB: Right. When the salmon have spawned and die in the stream, those nutrients interact with the forest. People are still studying the interconnectivity of those nutrients with both the forest and the stream ecology.

    LB: Yeah, when you think about all the things that want to eat a salmon and that get to eat salmon, it's not just humans. Bears eat salmon, Orca whales eat salmon, lots of things eat baby salmon, and lots of birds eat the eggs while they're still in the streams. It's kind of amazing, the gauntlet that salmon have to go through in order to survive and make it back to their stream. That's another part of the whole salmon life cycle that I think is amazing.

    But when you think of salmon just as something you see in the grocery store, you're missing this whole amazing story. And when you think of salmon feeding the bears and feeding the eagles and the birds that we're so interested in, and the forests that we depend on for so many different parts of our lives, it just makes the story so much richer and more interesting and complicated.

    EB: What would you say is the biggest barrier to people understanding the importance of wild salmon?

    LB: I think the biggest barrier is that people live so far away from the source of wild salmon, so there's a lot of opportunities for misunderstanding. When you live far away from a wild place, where you see the importance of the interaction between the ocean and the forest, and how that relates to creating healthy food, I think that's a barrier. And we're super lucky here, because we live really close to our food sources.

    EB: What would you say is the biggest misconception about wild salmon?

    LB: I think the biggest misconception is that salmon is just a food. For us, it is so much more. Salmon is an important link to the ocean and the forest. And if we treat the environment where salmon live and spawn well, we can have this incredibly abundant food.

    It's also this great symbol for us in terms of a life cycle. I mean, we see salmon swim upstream, lay their eggs, hatch out of their eggs, live their life in freshwater, go out into the ocean, where they live anywhere between a year, five years, seven years, return to the place where they were hatched, lay their eggs, and die. And it's right there in front of us.

    There's this dependence that the forest has on salmon and the dependence that salmon have on the forest. I mean, we need both salmon and the forest to have this healthy ecosystem. And I think that's something that is really special that we get to witness here in Sitka, and I think people don't quite fully understand that when they see it in the supermarket.

    Salmon spawning streams support healthy forest ecosystems which in turn keep salmon spawning streams the right temperature for the fish. Photo by Emma Bruhl.

    EB: What is sustainable salmon?

    LB: To me, sustainable salmon is that exact thing. If we treat the environment where salmon live and die well, we can have a very abundant population of salmon and it's something that will reap dividends for years and years to come.

    EB: What does it mean to treat the resource well?

    LB: Well, that's a little complicated because you know, they live in freshwater in the forest streams, and they live in the ocean. And so to me, that means making sure we don't pollute our oceans with plastics, making sure our trash is taken care of, making sure the forest is taken care of, for example, we don't mow the trees down right up next to where salmon spawn. So I know these are not small things, but they are important in terms of sustaining our food source.

    EB: That's part of why I think people in Sitka are so engaged--because people are so dependent on it and they really want to treat salmon well.

    LB: Something I learned very early on is the respect that we have for salmon here—tremendous respect from all different cultures. And what I love is when you see a commercial fisherman bring a salmon on board and there’s that flash of silver. I mean, it doesn't matter what kind of day it is, you know, you always see this little flash of silver and often a big grin on the person's face. It's hard not to smile when you have this amazing being so close to you.