Few of nature’s vast migrations are more spectacular than the yearly homecoming of hundreds of millions of wild salmon from the ocean to the streams their birth.
In the North Pacific, wild salmon play a lynchpin role in the ecosystem, nourishing everything from small insects to giant brown bears, from tundra plants to towering rainforest spruce. This annual gift from the sea also sustains people, playing a central role in human culture and economies for millennia. Wild salmon once filled the streams of Europe and North America; today, they exist in their original abundance and diversity only in Alaska, British Columbia and the Russian Far East.
It was this unique opportunity to safeguard the planet’s last intact wild salmon runs that drew the newly-formed Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to focus on wild salmon in the North Pacific as one of its first major conservation initiatives.
“Wild salmon and the way they tie disparate people, land and seascapes together have been a gift to us,” says Aileen Lee, chief program officer for the foundation’s Environmental Conservation Program.
Fifteen years and over 200 grants later, tens of millions of acres of expansive wild salmon habitat are in newly designated protected areas or greater conservation management, with millions more under consideration for additional protections. As examples, the new designations range from the Kol River Refuge in Kamchatka, to the withdrawal of Bristol Bay in Alaska from oil and gas drilling offshore, to the Great Bear Rainforest agreement in British Columbia, which stands today as a global model for large-scale, integrated conservation and development.
The Wild Salmon Ecosystem Initiative grantees also dramatically improved fishery management and expanded sustainable economic activity associated with wild salmon and their habitat. The Ozernaya River sockeye salmon fishery now bears Marine Stewardship Council certification. In British Columbia, grantmaking helped develop markets for an inland commercial fishery and for a revolutionary new land-based salmon aquaculture technique. These examples help removed fishing pressure from sensitive mixed stocks in the ocean and reduced the serious impacts of ocean-based aquaculture on wild salmon runs. In the Tongass National Forest, foundation investments demonstrated new economic opportunities in sustainable young-growth forestry as an alternative to old-growth forest clearcutting, and in Bristol Bay, thousands of local residents generated a new vision for a regional economy based on renewable resources.
Scientific discoveries about wild salmon systems emerged as the result of foundation support of basic research and assessment (e.g., Schindler et al, Nature; State of the Salmon) and helped land managers to increase their understanding of ecosystem dynamics, particularly in the face of climate change. Web-based knowledge systems for major watersheds such as the Copper River in Alaska and the Skeena in British Columbia increased public access to data and knowledge necessary to better steward these systems.
Finally, more sustainable policies on wild salmon, water and resource development emerged at local, state and national levels across our focal geographies—the result, in part, of the initiative’s efforts to build capacity for local people to better participate in the governance of their wild salmon systems.
As the initiative comes to an end in 2016, we recognize, with deep gratitude, that we have been privileged to have played a role in supporting the passionate individuals, organizations and communities who have accomplished this extraordinary body of work and who will continue to ensure wild salmon remain a returning gift to be shared long into the future.
“Salmon have a way of making people look at the whole system,” added Lee. “For us, the initiative revealed the power of organizing our conservation efforts around a resource like salmon, which by its very nature unifies the needs of people and those of the environment. We learned that the strength of the people who look to salmon for jobs, subsistence, and enjoyment provides a strong foundation for long-term conservation. These lessons have taken root in the foundation’s ongoing efforts in global conservation.”