Few American anglers know about Kamchatka, but they should if they care about the future of prized salmon, even if they never cross the Pacific to launch a fly on its pristine rivers.
The remote California-size appendage off Russia's east coast, separating the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk, provides some of the last abundant spawning habitat for salmon, not to mention rainbow trout, the char called Dolly Varden (after a character in a Charles Dickens novel), and other genetically unadulterated sport fish.
Kamchatka also provides challenging whitewater yet to be explored by kayakers. That is what lured Utah State University graduate student Jeffrey Hazboun, who served as a science coordinator for an expedition that helped film an episode of National Geographic's "Monster Fish" program airing this month.
Now a doctoral candidate in physics, Hazboun's undergraduate and professional background is in wildlife biology. He organized the trip last summer with five other kayak adventurers as a way to draw attention to the peninsula's wilderness value, now under threat from mining and oil and gas drilling.
"We wanted to minimize our impact and help out the place we go to," said Hazboun, 33. "A lot of the time we go to developing countries and it feels like we are taking advantage of them. This time we wanted to give something back."
"Monster Fish" host Zeb Hogan and producers wound up teaming with Hazboun's Kamchatka Project because the kayakers had already sorted out the complicated logistics of an expedition to such a remote and undeveloped place, where roads and landing strips are few and far between. Helicopters were needed to get the kayakers and film crews to the backcountry rivers.
Salmon hatch in freshwater streams, but live out their lives in the open sea. They return to the rivers that spawned them to reproduce and die and each population is genetically shaped by the river that spawned it. With minimal development and damming, Kamchatka's hundreds of free-flowing rivers produce up to one quarter of all Pacific salmon, according to the Oregon-based conservation group Wild Salmon Center. It is one of the last places that supports healthy breeding populations representing six species, the familiar king, chinook, sockeye, pink and chum, and the cherry salmon, which is confined to Asia.
"It's the most pristine of the salmon spawning areas left in the wold, including Alaska, where 40 percent of the salmon come from hatcheries, even in the Copper River. It is a healthy fishery, but they supplement it with hatchery fish to keep the industry strong," said Mariusz Wroblewski, the center's Western Pacific program director.
While dams and hydro-power development have snuffed wild salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest, Kamchatka's rivers remain open and largely unsullied. The undeveloped region is now ripe for gold and platinum mining and oil and gas drilling, which if done irresponsibly could leave rivers unsuitable for spawning, conservationists fear.
"Kamchatka is a jewel as far as wilderness is concerned. It has the largest density of grizzly bear on the planet. The greatest life history and genetic diversity for salmon is in Kamchatka," said Wroblewski. "They might not have more salmon [in Russia] than we do [in Alaska], but the quality of the stocks they have is superior."
Besides extractive industries, illegal fishing poses another threat. Poaching removes far more salmon than Russia's huge legal commercial catch, according to Wroblewski.
Hazboun went to Kamchatka looking for adventure, but he also made time for science. He took water chemistry measurements along the Karymskaya River for West Virginia University hydrologist Nick Zegre. It was the first time that river had been floated by kayakers.
The Monster Fish episode, titled "Russian Giants," was shot on the Zhupanova River, where the crew shot Hazboun reeling in his first rainbow trout, a 30-inch lunker. Not much of an angler then, he has since become a fly-casting enthusiast.
Kamchatka and salmon
Familiar species of Pacific salmon spawn heavily on this 800-mile strip of the Russian Far East. The Kamchatka peninsula produces one-fourth of the world's Pacific salmon and is an irreplaceable repository for salmon genes, which have been watered down in North America because of hatcheries, according to the Wild Salmon Center. National Geographic's "Monster Fish" airs an episode about Kamchatka salmon featuring Utah State University grad student and kayaker Jeffrey Hazboun on Friday, July 29.