This year, 56 million sockeye salmon swam hundreds of miles from the ocean toward the rivers and streams of the Bristol Bay watershed in southwest Alaska.
Many that escaped fishermen and bears leapt over waterfalls and used a mysterious combination of the Earth’s magnetic field and their own sensory memories to locate the exact streams where they were born — and then spawned, made gravel nests for their young, and died.
“It seems like a heroic — and perhaps tragic — life cycle,” said Thomas Quinn, a professor at the University of Washington who has been studying fish in Bristol Bay for 30 years.
The salmon’s incredible migration also sustains people: Nearly half of the world’s sockeye catch comes from this one region, which is one of the last, great salmon fisheries on Earth. The returning salmon and other ecological resources create some 14,000 full- and part-time jobs, generate about $480 million annually — and support 4,000-year-old Alaska Native cultures.