Georg Steller's sea cow went extinct within 30 years of his first describing it to science.
In 1738 a 28 year old German naturalist named Georg Steller set out from St. Petersburg with the Danish explorer, Vitus Bering on an expedition of discovery to the Russian Far East. No one in Moscow or Europe had a clue what was there and Peter the Great had commissioned the expedition with simple instructions to see what they could find. The most geo-politically famous result, three years later, was their becoming the first Europeans to make landfall in Alaska, and by extension the western part of North America. But before it sailed what is now the Bering Sea, the expedition spent two years building ships and gathering supplies. During this time Steller roamed Russia’s incomparable Kamchatka Peninsula in what must have been a euphoric haze of botanical and zoological wonder.
Everywhere he looked creatures never before identified to western science walked, flew, grew and swam. In a blitz of field notes and sketches, he described all he could get his eyes and hands on. Many of these species today bear his legacy – Steller’s sea lion, sea eagle, jay, eider and sea cow, the later a comely, graceful, manatee-like creature, sadly hunted to extinction within 30 years of Steller’s finding it. Other of Steller’s creatures have since proved to be cornerstone species, on whose existence we now know countless others depend, across international lines and throughout the North Pacific.
Oncorhynchus tshawytscha – king / chinook salmon
Oncorhynchus nerka – sockeye / red salmon
Oncorhynchus kisutch – silver / coho salmon
Oncorhynchus keta – chum / dog salmon
Oncorhynchus gorbuscha – humpy / humpback / pink salmon
Oncorhynchus mykiss – rainbow trout
Steller was the first to hold each of these in his hands and contemplate their significance to the rest of the known world. At the same time he was – atypically for his time – aware of and respectful of place, and of his status as visitor. In his original descriptions of the fish he used only the names given to them by the native Koryak people of central Kamchatka; tshawytscha, nerka, kisutch, keta, gorbuscha, and mykiss (a derevation of the Koryak, mikizha,). By convention, the Koryaks’ and Steller’s terminology has stayed in the taxonomical nomenclature.
Two hundred and twenty years later a brilliant young icthyologist from Moscow State University, Ksenia Savvaitova, had taken the arctic char as her first subject of study and in short order had become a preeminent expert. “The Dolly Queen,” as she was known (probably because her English speaking colleagues couldn’t pronounce her name), next took an interest in the broader salmonidae family and in 1969 began the search for a place to study them. Research quickly led her to fixate on a dagger of land slicing into the fertile, cold North Pacific on Russia’s east coast. An American colleague of Savvaitova’s remembers her explanation of the draw; “Western Kamchatka was the perfect place [for fish] because no one lived there…It was far away, it was mysterious, and it was beautiful.” She made the trek eastward.
Her suspicions were born out. It was salmon heaven. Evidence of their prolific numbers were literally everywhere. From trees and tundra, to brown bears and baby fish, to Georg Steller’s eagle, to the human residents themselves, the salmon species soundly and obviously underpinned Kamchatka’s web of life. She became interested especially in the enigmatic sea-run form of Oncorhynchus mykiss, known also as Kamchatka steelhead. Though it wasn’t nearly as widely distributed as other salmonids, utilizing only a handful of west coast rivers for its spawning runs, mykiss exhibited an astonishing number of life history patterns and survival strategy variations.
On arrival Savvaitova had only an inkling of where she might find steelhead and, on a hunch, walked 80 miles through rugged wilderness toward the Kvachina River. Like Steller, Savvaitova’s scientific method placed real value on native people’s understanding of nature, and she incorporated such knowledge into her studies. In a summer subsistence fish camp on the Kvachina she interviewed a Koryak woman who gave her a crucial piece of information. Savvaitova asked if there were steelhead in the Kvachina. The woman replied, “Yes, there are many.”
As it turned out, however, the fascinating sea-run mykizha needed study and understanding for reasons more pressing than Savvaitova’s simple curiosity: Brakoneerov – poachers – were netting the river at an unsustainable rate. Even Kvachina steelhead, it seemed, existing as remotely as is possible, were nevertheless in a dire position.
On return from Kamchatka, Savvaitova did two things. She began lobbying to have the Kamchatka steelhead listed for protection under the Russian Federal Red Book, a catalog of rare and disappearing species analogous to the Endangered Species Act. In 1983 she succeeded. She also set to work on writing a book that would become a landmark in her field, with a title that aptly summarizes her life’s work since, The Noble Trouts of Kamchatka. In the 20 years that followed, she returned to the steelhead and salmon of Kamchatka periodically, but in the instable waning years of the Sovient Union, protection of the fish existed solely on paper.
Moscow State University Academician, Ksenia Savvaitova, Kamchatka Steelhead Project sponsor, Bob Hamilton, and a Kvachina River steelhead, circa 2000.
In the early 1990’s, an ardent steelhead flyfisher from Seattle, Washington, Pete Soverel, was becoming increasing frustrated with established efforts to conserve sea-run fish in America’s Pacific Northwest. Despite a reasonable amount of concern and money flowing toward river and fish restoration, none of it seemed to be making a difference. Fish runs had been crashing hard for decades and there was little hope in sight of the trend reversing. Analysis showed that once a river is dammed, de-forested, mined and polluted, it verges on senseless to pour money into band-aide efforts without addressing the giganticness of the socio-political problem of environmental disrespect. Once you bake it, it turns out, a cake is very difficult to unbake.
Soverel began to formulate a plan for conservation that would come from a different angle. The idea was as simple as it was obvious and overlooked – find the best, most pristine watersheds left and do your damnedest to keep them that way. In terms of effort and money spent, all you’d have to do to keep fish stocks at historical highs in such places, is nothing.
In pursuit of this, in 1993 Soverel founded a conservation organization called, The Wild Salmon Center and began studying maps and data on the untouched steelhead-bearing watersheds left on our planet. Like Savvaitova 25 years earlier, it didn’t take him long to settle on Kamchatka. “I’d always known the fish were identified by Steller in Kamchatka, and thought, If they were there 250 years ago, were they still there?”
A former naval officer and Regan Whitehouse staffer, Soverel called on high-level connections he’d made while there to feel out his plan. He called a friend in Moscow, an ex-CIA spymaster now making a living connecting Russian and American businessmen in the post-Cold War environment of warmed relations. Soverel asked him to find out what he could about steelhead in Kamchatka. A couple days later he found himself speaking through a telephone to Ksenia Savvaitova.
She told him what she’d found in her expeditions over the last two decades – the magnificence of the land, rivers and fish. She pointedly explained too how, despite the steelhead’s Red Book listing, poaching of the species continued unabated. There was no money for enforcement, no money for study, no money for anything.
Inspired, Soverel then appealed to the US State Department for support. Through a post-Soviet program aimed at “promotion of democracy and cooperation with Russia,” the Wild Salmon Center was granted $25,000. The National Marine Fisheries Service chipped in another $15,000 to support involvement of University of Washington graduate student, Barry Berijikian. With core grant funding in hand, Soverel immediatly put together the American component of the expedition. This consisted four adventursome anglers – Maunsel Pierce, Jeff Mishler, and Terry and Denise Nichols. They helped round out the funding with personal donations, and would act as the volunteer labor force to catch Kamchatka steelhead for the scientists. In the fall of 1994 they set off to meet Savvaitova and her team on the Kvachina River.
Between September 24th and October 9th, 1994, the expedition found steelhead in fair numbers, and exceptional size. Moreover, both sides saw a unique opportunity for cooperation. The Kamchatka Steelhead Project was born; an ingenious program whereby Soverel’s anglers were invited to sponsor Savvaitova’s scientists and, through special dispensation from the Russian Federal Government, join in the scientific efforts by catching adult steelhead for biological sampling. In 1995, 40 anglers signed up. The next year there were more. Soverel, as a steelhead angler and a conservationist, had forged a satisfying and effective partnership between those two elements. In doing so, he “had found the most exciting thing I could do with the rest of my life.”
The Kamchatka Steelhead Project was successful from multiple angles. Over the course of it’s 15 year first phase, 20 peer-reviewed academic papers were published from data collected in its basecamps, providing major contributions to science, while anglers flipped out at the opportunity to encounter steelhead of such magnitude. The program has been portrayed in the media – notably in an article in the New York Times, Forbes Magazine, and this terrific, if bitter-sweet National Public Radio report from 2003: Fishing for Science in Kamchatka – as a unique marriage of angler passion and funding with the science of conservation. The model set by the KSP is today used at the Stanford Business School as a case study for international cooperation in the growing realm of green business.
Most importantly, for the fish themselves, the brakoneer’s nets were kept out of the Kvachina, Snatolvayam, Sopochnaya and Utholok Rivers. The positive result was on full display in 1999 when, after a single 5-year life-cycle, a second generation of protected steelhead returned in greater numbers than they had in decades. The same was true again with a third generation in 2004.
In 2003, however, a shake-up in the Russian wildlife management bureaucracy caused the angler component of the KSP to be suspended. Science and anti-poaching efforts continued independently until 2008, and then funding dried up.
No one with a conservation interest has been on the steelhead rivers of Kamchatka in two years, despite Moscow University’s desire to continue research, and despite the threat of the brakoneer, who view steelhead as money to pluck from an unpatrolled river.
Having anglers on the steelhead rivers of Kamchatka was a demonstrably good thing for fish populations.
I distinctly remember the first wild steelhead I ever saw. I stood on a logjam, peering down at it from above as it held in swift, clear current. It was so big compared to a trout! And it held its place with a mixture of honesty, pride, beauty, and mystery. If it had had a passport, it would no doubt be overflowing with stamps from oceanic wanderings through Canada, the United States, Russia, maybe even Japan and Korea. And yet there it was, doing it’s own thing, oblivious to its anthropomorphic qualities, in a rain-swollen creek amid cedars and spruce in Southeast Alaska. I became instantaneously obsessed, and I hadn’t cast yet.
Like Savvaitova and Soverel – in fact, though I didn’t know it at the time, through them – I first became interested in Kamchatka because of the rumors of steelhead. I had seen the pictures in the magazines and heard the fishermen’s chatter on rivers. In December of 2003 I contacted Soverel and somehow talked myself into a guide gig within his program, now expanded to include the great trout streams of Kamchatka. A couple months later the plug was pulled on the Kamchatka Steelhead Project.
Now news has come through of its revival.
Until September 15th, I’ll be the guy in the corner, collapsed, twitching in a puddle of adrenaline.