Fish, Men And Trees

Albert Einstein once said: “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it’s stupid.” Einstein may have been a genius, but we fishermen respectfully disagree.

Salmon fin

By: Richie Mann, Sitka Salmon Shares

(Thank you to Sitka Salmon Shares for helping to raise funds for AWL and our ongoing work to protect the Tongass! Use this special AWL partnership code: ALASKAFISH for $25 off any of their new 2020 memberships and Sitka Salmon Shares will give $25 back to AWL. This code expires 12/1/19.)

Salmon it turns out, are exceptional tree climbers. In fact, it’s their tree-climbing ability that binds fishermen like me to the forest, and it’s this connection that makes stewardship of the Tongass National Forest our imperative.

Fish climbing trees? In Alaska? Let me explain.

The Tongass is the largest, intact temperate rainforest in the world. The mighty trees of the Tongass are surpassed only by the surrounding mountains — which act as stoic guardians to the 17 million acres of protected, wild lands within the forest. Western red cedar, Sitka spruce and western hemlock populate an ecosystem deeply rooted to our livelihoods as fishermen.

Millenia ago, water eroded a path between the forest and the ocean. Today, thousands of salmon streams run through the Tongass’ watershed. Each year, millions of salmon migrate from the ocean to spawn in upriver gravel-beds beneath the forest’s shade in perfect, pristine habitat, before they die. And, it turns out that their bodies are vessels carrying raw marine energy throughout the forest ecosystem.

Bears  in the Tongass feast on salmon, preparing their bodies for winter with 20,000 kilojoules of fat and protein from one average salmon. A bear can actually carry more than 40 salmon carcasses into the forest at a time. They are joined in their feasting by many other creatures in the forest — even the herbivorous Sitka blacktail deer are known to eat their fill.

Each salmon carcass contains 130 grams of nitrogen and 20 grams of phosphorus. The concentrations of these nutrients, which enter the soil when the salmon are eaten or die, can exceed that of commercial fertilizer. This has a profound impact on the nearby vegetation. Western hemlock and Sitka spruce grow three times faster near salmon streams, and berry bushes will develop larger berries with more numerous seeds.

Despite what Einstein might have thought, salmon (or more precisely, their nutrients) climb from the roots of plants and trees into the forest canopy. In fact, 70% of the nitrogen in the foliage near salmon streams come from the salmon themselves.

Salmon are essential to the health of the forest. The forest, in turn, gives back to salmon. Low-hanging and fallen trees above salmon streams create vital spawning habitat. The strong root systems of bushes and trees hold together soil and give structure to the banks of spawning streams. The trees’ shade shelters salmon eggs from the hot sun, and freshly hatched, baby salmon (called “alevin”) will use fallen branches as shields from predators, or from the swift currents that might prematurely whisk them to the ocean.

This symbiosis between the salmon and the forest means that fishermen must act as stewards for both marine habitats and forests like the Tongass.

As the nations’ leading community-supported fishery, Sitka Salmon Shares honors this connection because it enables us to bring the world’s most incredible, wild and line-caught seafood from Alaska’s nutrient rich waters directly to the doorstep of more than 6,000 members across the lower 48.

To learn more about what we’re doing to support the Tongass and a community of traditional, sustainable fishermen in Southeast Alaska, please visit We’re raising funds for AWL and their ongoing protection of the Tongass! Use this special AWL partnership code: ALASKAFISH for $25 off any of our new 2020 memberships and Sitka Salmon Shares will give $25 back to AWL. This code expires 12/1/19. Contact Richie Mann with any questions,