A New Line of Defense
For Wild Salmon Populations

Since the late-1990s, Guido Rahr (M.E.S. '94), head of the Wild Salmon Center, has helped craft new strategies to restore populations of the Pacific salmon, a species whose numbers plummeted during the 20th century.
Guido Rahr Pacific Salmon
Courtesy of Guido Rahr
The 20th century was not kind to Pacific salmon. Dams on rivers throughout Washington and Oregon blocked fish from their spawning grounds, agriculture turned rivers like California’s San Joaquin into muddy trickles, and mismanaged fisheries across the Pacific Rim harvested salmon at unsustainable rates. To compensate for the resultant declines, hatcheries released billions of fish into rivers throughout the Northwest, overwhelming wild populations and diluting genetic diversity.
The result, says Guido Rahr M.E.S. ’94, head of the Wild Salmon Center, was that by the mid-1990’s wild salmon, the bulwark of ecosystems, economies and cultures throughout the Pacific Northwest, had been reduced to less than 10 percent of their historic abundance. Rahr was then working for Oregon Trout, a small conservation group that made waves by petitioning to list several salmon species under the federal Endangered Species Act. “All of a sudden,” says Rahr, a native Oregonian, “our region realized that wild salmon were in terrible shape, and that many were trending toward extinction.”
It’s amazing what people can do when you give them tools and a little support.
— Guido Rahr
At the time, says Rahr, listing failing salmon as endangered was a necessary recourse — yet he couldn’t help but feel that the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) wasn’t enough. “We were stuck in a cycle, where nothing really happened until salmon populations were at such low levels that they qualified for protection under the ESA,” Rahr recalls. “Every hospital needs an emergency room, but it shouldn’t be the first line of defense. We didn’t have any way of preventing healthy populations from declining.”
While other conservation groups devoted themselves to costly — and marginally effective — restoration projects, Oregon Trout began to sketch out a new strategy. Rahr began searching for “strongholds”: intact ecosystems, unmarred by dams or hatcheries, in which salmon still thrived. In 1998 Rahr brought his strategy to the Wild Salmon Center, where he took over as the group’s first full-time executive director and began building programs from Oregon to Alaska to northern Japan.

One of the most intriguing strongholds on Rahr’s list was Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, a vast, untamed swath of forests and rivers that author David Quammen has called “salmon heaven.” Kamchatka’s habitat may be salmon heaven, but its lack of regulation was reminiscent of the wild west: In 2009, the World Wildlife Fund estimated that poachers, most in search of caviar, were taking up to 55,000 tons of salmon per year.  “On one hand, you have pristine habitat and half the world’s wild salmon in the Russian Far East,” Rahr says. “On the other, you have a rush to develop those resources in a relatively lawless environment.”
The solution: reaching out to legitimate fishermen with a vested interest in preventing poaching. “Russian commercial fishermen really wanted access to major seafood buyers,” explains Rahr. But to sell salmon to western consumers at a viable price, they needed certification from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the panel that slaps a seal of approval on well-managed fisheries. At the same time, American seafood purveyors like Walmart and Safeway were looking for new, sustainable sources of wild fish. The Wild Salmon Center helped the two groups forge a partnership; today, the west’s largest food purveyors support the efforts of fishermen on a remote Russian peninsula to combat poaching.
“Russian fishermen want to demonstrate sustainability, to demonstrate chain of custody so that [seafood buyers] know the fish aren’t poached,” says Rahr, who adds that 20 percent of the Russian commercial fishing industry is either MSC-certified or working toward certification. “It’s amazing what people can do when you give them tools and a little support.”
Throughout his tenure at the Wild Salmon Center, Rahr has had ample support himself — much of it from fellow graduates of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Peter Seligmann M.F.S. ’74, the co-founder of Conservation International, where Rahr worked when the organization was still in its infancy, helped inspire WSC’s salmon stronghold approach. And Margaret Williams M.E.Sc. ‘93, founder of the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic Program, introduced Rahr to Russian biologist Misha Skopets, “the Indiana Jones of salmon,” who facilitated Rahr’s work in the Far East.
“As helpful as the coursework were my fellow students,” Rahr now says of his time at F&ES. “It was incredible to be able to learn from other people who’d worked in conservation in other countries.”
Kamchatka is just one of the many success stories that the Wild Salmon Center has engineered — to date, the group has preserved over one million acres of salmon stronghold habitat around the world, established new salmon conservation groups, and helped five fisheries earn MSC certification. Yet little gives Rahr, a lifelong fisherman, as much satisfaction as hooking a spring-run Chinook salmon on a fly rod in an Oregon river. “The chance to protect a species that means so much to me and my family is really satisfying,” says Rahr, “and incredibly motivating.”

About the Author

Ben Goldfarb is a 2013 graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where he served as editor of Sage Magazine. He is a Seattle-based correspondent for High Country News, a magazine that covers environmental issues throughout the American West.

PUBLISHED: November 7, 2013
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.