Story last updated at 4/6/2011 - 12:51 pm
The salmon engraved on Karl Jordan's wedding band reflects his family's way of life. A fourth-generation fisherman in Sitka, Jordan is proud to catch what he considers the best food in the world. "Many people want to be in tune with their food and know its story," he says. "When you have high-quality wild salmon, what else do you need?"
At 28, Jordan is more in tune with his connection to the natural world than people twice his age. His "commute" aboard Sassy, his 38-foot trolling boat, takes him past forested islands, rafting sea otters, and breaching humpback whales. He looks for seabirds feeding on herring, a good sign that salmon may be present. Weather, tides, and water temperatures guide his decisions. He knows he's part of an intricate web. "The salmon do us an awesome service by nourishing our bodies," he says. "And when they swim into the streams, they transport nutrients from the ocean and provide for the forest as well."
Since Jordan makes his living based on the number of pounds of fish he harvests, it's easy to think he would want to catch as many as possible, but he knows there has to be a balance. "A healthy natural environment provides a source to harvest wealth from," he says. "As fishermen, our economic viability depends on a healthy ecosystem."
He strives to maximize the value of each fish in order to operate as sustainably as possible. He'd like to take guests on his boat to experience a small-scale fishing operation. Many people would be surprised to learn that most of the wild salmon they order in a restaurant or buy at a market are caught by mom-and-pop operators like him.
Jordan has spent enough time outside Alaska to know how special his home is. Washington, Oregon, and northern California used to have bountiful salmon that supported a thriving fishing industry. Today, the salmon runs and fisheries there are just a fraction of what they once were. In these states, Jordan sees storm drains in the streets that are stenciled with "Salmon Stream. Don't Pollute." But in Southeast Alaska, he says, "you don't see signs like that. Instead, you see salmon everywhere, and you realize you're living in their territory."
He hopes people will see that the Tongass is a place where salmon can still thrive, and that the fish connect the land to the sea. "It's one of the last places like it in the world. It's not a tree farm and it's owned by everybody," he says. "I hope we can learn how to make a living by using the area as a savings account and making small withdrawals."
Since salmon have supported his family for four generations, he feels a responsibility to ensure that salmon can continue to thrive. He hopes his two young daughters will have the opportunity to become the fifth generation of fishing Jordans.
"It's a special lifestyle," he says.
Amy Gulick's book "Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska's Tongass Rain Forest" was published by Braided River in 2010. For more information, visit www.salmoninthetrees.org.