The bird dove towards my head at 60 miles per hour, screaming its head off. At the last second she swerved away from me and flew off. Before she could circle around for another pass I beat a hasty retreat to the boat. From the river I could hear my clients laughing.
On the Kvichak River arctic terns mean business! You learn quickly not to approach their nests unless you want to be driven off by a 3-4 ounce bird. Unfortunately, in June all of the best fishing is around the gravel bars and islands where the terns breed. Every day my clients and I were amused and not a little intimidated by these birds aerial bombardment. You quickly warm to their unabashed bravado and impressive flying skills. Artic terns really are amazing birds.
Every year arctic terns migrate from the South Pole to the North. They live in perpetual summer, passing through the tropics during the spring and fall, living in the Polar Regions only during the warm summer months. Their yearly journey is approximately 40,000 km (25,000 miles) which is the longest migration of any bird in the world.
Like salmon, arctic terns nest in the same place they were born, often in the exact same colonies. Nests are built on gravel bars in the open and if approached, adults will aggressively dive bomb trespassers. During the breeding season these terns live mainly on small fish and, in the area of Alaska where I work, those fish are almost entirely salmon smolt.
In June hundreds of millions of sockeye salmon smolt, possibly as many as three quarters of a billion fish, swim out of Lake Iliamna into the Kvichak river. Here, on the gravel bars near the mouth the river, thousands of arctic terns nest. Exact numbers of terns are not well known. Indeed, there is very limited data on arctic tern populations throughout their breeding range, but some populations are in decline.
So what does this have to do with conservation? Like most of the species in the Lake Iliamna/Kvichak River area, these birds are threatened by the proposed Pebble Mine. The breeding colonies along the Kvichak River require huge amounts of food to rear their young. Without the salmon, the colony cannot survive, and the salmon are threatened. Salmon require pristine tributaries for spawning grounds and a healthy ecosystem in which to grow in until they are ready to swim for the ocean. Any disruption to the environment, even temporary, could be catastrophic for arctic terns.
The people behind Pebble Mine claim that for every fish killed by the mine, they will replace it. But for that short period while the smolt are gone, what will happen to the terns? Without their primary source of food during the breeding season, they will die.
We in the fly fishing community need to help. We need to get involved with conservation.
How can we do that? By sharing the experiences that made us as fly fishermen realize we need to conserve. Every week I had new clients, and a new opportunity to educate them about the wonders of the environment, including arctic terns. By explaining the complex web between salmon, terns and a healthy ecosystem, and then facilitating a positive experience in that ecosystem, my clients came to understand why the ecosystem is worth protecting, and why Pebble Mine cannot be allowed to exist.
For conservation issues everywhere fly fishermen hold a powerful education tool. Take someone fishing and share the experience of your favorite piece of water. Let the environment speak for itself and conservation practically becomes a natural reflex regardless of race, religion or political orientation. We can all do our part. Take someone fishing. Get involved in experiential conservation.