I was pondering the cycle of life yesterday as I walked along a creek full of spawning salmon in Juneau, Alaska where I live. I’m somewhere in the middle of that cycle with young kids and aging parents serving as my bookends. The recent deaths of our family dog and then my father, left me asking myself just what I want to do with the limited time we’re all given.

King salmon, also called chinook, is one of five Pacific salmon species. The Bering Sea produces 40% of America’s wild seafood.

King salmon, also called chinook, is one of five Pacific salmon species. The Bering Sea produces more than 55% of America’s wild seafood.

Looking down, I realized salmon, of course, don’t pontificate these big questions.

Brandon's kids watching salmon swim upstream.

Brandon’s kids watching salmon swim upstream.

They start off as eggs, then become tiny fish, swim to the ocean, grow up for a few years, swim back to their birth stream, spawn, and die. A salmon doesn’t regret missing a trip to the Grand Canyon nor wishes it  had seen polar bears in the Arctic just once during its lifetime. There are no bookends for salmon.

Despite this, each generation of salmon leaves its legacy for the next. Salmon bodies decay and fertilize the soil. Because of this natural “fish fertilizer”, great forests grow up around salmon streams. In return, the trees shade and cool the water which baby salmon like. The soil filters rain and snow; providing clean, clear water for the salmon babies. This why Alaska is so proud of its wild salmon, because a healthy wild salmon population also means the water is clean and free-flowing, the forest is healthy, snow and rain are plentiful, and the whole ecosystem is intact enough to support both wildlife and human consumption.

My work with WWF on salmon conservation recently brought me to the Kamchatka peninsula in the Russian Far East. Together with Alaska, it is the last wild salmon stronghold in the world and there too wild salmon runs are threatened with ill-conceived development such as massive-scale gold mining, oil drilling, and hydropower dams.

It’s frightening. Lessons from the Pacific Northwest – where hydropower dams and habitat destruction have nearly eliminated wild salmon – might be repeated in Kamchatka. One of the most gorgeous Kamchatka rivers – Zhupanova River – which contains giant rainbow trout prized by catch-and-release fly fishermen could be dammed as soon as 2017.

Yet, Kamchatka has an excess of geothermal energy, enough to power the whole region. Supporting green energy development in Kamchatka is a priority for WWF, and one major challenge is to get local decision-makers to more highly value their wild salmon and all that is connected and can help to sustain wild salmon populations, including nature tourism.

Salmon mural in Dillingham, Alaska by artist Apayo Moore.

Salmon mural in Dillingham, Alaska by artist Apayo Moore.

When I look back on my life so far, I have some regrets, as anyone might. I think of people and places I should have visited at particular moments in time. I learned from experience to seize the moment and not squander the time and opportunities I’m given.

By Heather Brandon, Senior Fisheries Officer, WWF Arctic Field Program