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Salmon – the word triggers many associations but two stand out above all others. The first is primeval nature; large and powerful fish swimming through fast, clear waters. The second is food; tender, pink flesh, and the delicacy of caviar. These associations are the result of long-term and complicated interactions between our ancestors and salmon. For humans, salmon has long been a substantial and affordable source of nutrition.

In the days before modern nets and rods, Russia’s rivers would fill with salmon every summer. The fish, having lost their natural caution during the spawning season became easy prey. It is no coincidence that the ancient hunters and fishermen who lived along the banks of the White Sea rivers six thousand years ago, painted images of salmon on the rocks.

Later, salmon fishing and hunting became the main occupation of the Russian settlers who explored these vast and inhospitable places – areas such as Pomorye, Kamchatka, and Khabarovsky Kray.

Salmon was not just a food. It was used for paying taxes, sent to the Tsar’s table as a tribute and sold to the regions further South to buy bread and iron tools. Large monasteries, such as Solovetsky, became rich through trading salt and salmon. Over the years, salmon steadily became both a delicacy and a symbol of wealth.

Originally, the importance of salmon was related to its high nutritional value and the ease with which it could be caught. These properties encouraged more intensive harvesting and, as a result, salmon stocks in many countries have declined catastrophically. Over-exploitation was not the only reason for falling populations and even total extinction of salmon in many places. Construction of dams blocked access to spawning grounds, pollution increased, and the development of commercial logging, accompanied by timber-rafting all had serious and detrimental effects on the fate of many salmon populations. The Atlantic salmon was especially hard hit. Much of its historic habitat falls within areas that were some of the earliest to have been industrialised. The rivers of Holland, Germany, France, Northern Spain and the Atlantic coast of America lost almost all of their salmon populations. Throughout this period of steady extinction, the salmon gradually became a symbol of wild, primeval nature.

Ilya Sherbovich