All The Fish

A Conversation with Jeff Corwin About All The Fish

The co-hosts of our Fish of the Week! podcast had a conversation with American biologist and wildlife conservationist Jeff Corwin. From Pacific salmon to Striped Bass and Brook Trout, there are many ways to connect with fish and reinvent the ways we think about them.

Out of all the fish to talk about, why Pacific salmon?

Salmon are so amazing. Rarely in life do you get to really witness something that’s the ultimate nature spectacle. Sitting in a Range Rover and watching a million wildebeest coming across the African plains and bringing in thousands of hyenas and lions and tens of thousands of antelope — that incredible awe-inspiring spectacle is almost as interesting as the salmon that you find in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

“The salmon is the glue that sticks that whole ecosystem together.”

a man in a stream holding a bright red fish
Jeff with a Sockeye Salmon in Alaska. 📷 Hearst Media Production Group

If you walk up a vibrant rivulet or stream in Alaska, you’ll see the branches bowing over with salmon berries and blueberries. Kodiak bears. Bald eagles. When you add on to that recreation, the commercial importance of salmon, the critical contribution salmon make to Alaska Native communities culturally…Alaska is Alaska because of salmon.

It’s also something that anyone can witness. You can get off a cruise ship in Juneau, walk 1,000 feet up a hill and see three species of salmon coming into a river surrounded by an urban environment. It’s just incredible to me. I’ve been walking up little trails not far from a neighborhood, or going for a jog not far from a place like Anchorage, and seen a little stream choked with big salmon and wondered, “how is this anvil size fish snaking its way up this river?

Big red salmon moving upstream
Big Chinook Salmon move up Ship Creek in Anchorage, Alaska to spawn. 📷 USFWS/Ryan Hagerty

Salmon are also the ultimate symbol of life renewal. And sacrifice. Because for all the salmon that get in, none get out. It’s like a roach motel. They make that ultimate sacrifice to secure the next generation. And by doing that they reinfuse and reenergize the whole ecosystem. [more on the salmon end-of-life cycle here]

All Pacific salmon die after spawning in or near the freshwater rivers where they were born. 📷 USFWS/Dan Rinella

What was it like the first time you personally experienced a salmon run?

I can remember the first time I encountered wild salmon. It was in Geographic Harbor, Alaska for my first television series — Disney Channel’s Going Wild. It was my first time in Alaska. I think I was 27 years old. We went there to film bears. This was long before I had established a career as a biologist.

“I was there to see bears and salmon and just interpret that moment. And it was like if you took the Lion King and put it in fish, all the circle of life was right there.”

I believe they were Sockeye Salmon. I just remember how beautiful it was. And I thought, “man, I’ll never get to experience this again like this.” Well, I’ve had a chance to revisit that story even in bigger and better ways. Compare that to the East Coast where we have only one native salmon species [learn more about Atlantic Salmon here]. I’ve never seen a wild one, because they’re so rare. But I have a passion for trout and native trout. And I’ve discovered that we actually have a very vibrant population at eastern Brook Trout where I live, which most people would never even know.

The beautifully-speckled Brook Trout. 📷 USFWS/Ryan Hagerty

I can take you to a tiny little creek in a little suburban neighborhood and you’ll see Brook Trout in it. A friend of mine had just got a house on a pond and I looked at the way the stream was configured and said, “I bet you have Brook Trout.” And he didn’t believe me.

“We went out we caught a beautiful wild jewel of a Brook Trout.”

Brook Trout live here. 📷 USFWS/Ryan Hagerty

I’ve never seen a wild Atlantic Salmon in New England. Despite the many attempts to restore them, there hasn’t been success. So I’ve never had a backyard salmon experience except in Alaska, where it’s pretty remarkable.

To build on that, how do we gain a better appreciation for fish? Especially those fish that aren’t catchable or easy to see?

I think that really is my motivation for why I do the television shows that I do. I’ve probably done 50-60 salmon stories in my career — it’s such a riveting story and the audience responds to that story. With Wildlife Nation, one episode looks at the direct connection between the loss of glaciers because of climate change, and how that impacts the survival and productivity of salmon downstream. In a place like Alaska, salmon are a big motivating factor that bring many people to Alaska.

“But I think you bring up a bigger question, and that’s about our respect for fish overall.”

For example, I am a passionate Striped Bass fishing person. I love Striped Bass, and I love to catch tuna. And these are species that we are concerned about. I did a story on Striped Bass for Wildlife Nation last summer, and learned things that I had no idea about. For example, you know what the mortality rate is of catch and release for striped bass?

a white fish with stripes along its side with a white background
A Striped Bass. 📷 ppark728/iNaturalist

[The number of Striped Bass that die after being caught and released is actually really high. learn more about this fish and topic on this episode of our podcast]

I think the biggest factor that needs to change is the cultural perception of fish. You look at a Striped Bass, and you’re like, “it’s just a fish.” I watch people catch them all the time — I literally sit here and have a hissy fit watching people drag fish down to the sand, step on them with their feet, and pass them around for photos. That fish is dead.

“I think we need to reinvent our opinion on fish overall.”

You need to look at it almost like you’d look at a wild turkey or a deer — understanding that you’re catching an animal. If you’re catching a 30 inch fish, that fish is over a decade old. It’s just now getting into its prime. Until people look at them differently, and more respectfully, and are more ginger in how they handle fish, that’s not going to change.

Handling tips if you plan to catch and release: have your camera ready, wet your hands first to avoid damaging the protective slime layer, and keep the gills submerged. This beautiful Lake Trout is from Artic National Wildlife Refuge. 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

You don’t see a lot of people who get degrees in the biological sciences go into communications. Was that your plan from the beginning?

I was a pretty unconventional kid in many ways. I always had a passion for animals and nature since five or six years old. When I was 16, I was spending time in rainforests a really developed a passion for tropical ecosystems and always had a big love for snakes and reptiles. I started to have this epiphany that I didn’t want to be a research scientist. And I thought, “well, I kind of want to be a teacher. I want to be an educator.” But at that age, my 20s, where people were going into careers as professors at universities, I could tell I wasn’t hardwired for going for tenure track or something like that. I got featured in a documentary around 1994 — a project sponsored by National Geographic and hosted by Bob Ballard who was a big oceanographer, a big explorer. He was one to discover the Titanic shipwreck. He did this big project on rainforests and featured me, this kid from Massachusetts who was living in a rainforest studying bats and snakes. I just loved that experience.

“I loved the idea of distilling this complex story into a way that would engage and entertain the audience but at the same time build up this level of awareness.”

I spent three or four years peddling that concept. There was Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom, and then, 20 years later, it was time for the MTV generation-type experience. And sure enough, when they relaunched Disney Channel around ‘97, they brought me in to have my own show. I did that for three years, went back to graduate school, and then went back into television with my Animal Planet and Discovery stuff, which lasted for many years, and now ABC.

A big way people connect with fish is through fishing. And not everybody fishes. So not everyone’s connected in that way. It’s a little more challenging for people to connect with fish.

Yeah, it’s interesting about Alaska’s salmon. Again, they’re one of these creatures that allows you to witness everything else. Not only can you go into a stream and see a 20-pound king salmon, or a big old humpy salmon that’s all marked up as it goes into senescence, but you’re seeing it in six inches of water. And then you’re seeing the bald eagles. You’re seeing a Kodiak Brown Bear 100 feet away. And as long as you give that bear respect, you could be a part of that moment, you could be the ultimate fly on the wall and see everything else come together. Because that is what determines feast and famine for all these creatures. And so it allows you to experience the most significant expression of nature in a very accessible way.

A big brown bear holds a salmon in its mouth with snow in the background
A male Coho Salmon provides a meal for a female Kodiak brown bear (Alaska). Coho return later in the year to spawn than other species (like Chinook and Sockeyes), and provide an important late-season food source for bears. 📷 USFWS/Lisa Hupp

I could sit here in Massachusetts on my porch and I could watch a peregrine falcon or Arctic eiders. I can’t passively sit my chair and observe fish moving. I would either have to be scuba diving or snorkeling and have some thermal management. Or I’d have some high-end fish finder technology. That is how you access that. Unless of course, you’re in a remote stream in Alaska or even an urban stream. Or maybe you’re lucky where you get runs of river herring, or alewives like we still have rivers that have those here in northeast. So you’ll get that amazing spectacle.

a view of 3 fish underwater with boulders and bubbles
The upstream Alewife migration is a sight to be seen in Maine and other coastal rivers in the Northeast. 📷 Kat4848/iNaturalist

I was visiting a friend of mine, a retired biologist. And he took me to this little depressed-looking stream with rusty shopping carts and we went fly fishing — we’re catching wild, beautiful little Brook Trout. And it was running through a community that was certainly disenfranchised in many ways. And how many of those people know that that little stream is running through their backyard filled with wild Brook Trout? There are people with a great passion for fish that get the importance of fish. But it’s, you know, we’re in different worlds. I think it requires a sense of focus and more investment to observe fish and appreciate fish in the wild than going birdwatching in a park or something like that.

Do you have any tips for folks entering the conservation field who have an inclination for communication?

What I would say to someone who has a passion for nature and wants to be involved with some level of interpretation or communication is this: In addition to having that passion, you need to have the education. Build up a strong foundation in the biological or life sciences. Let’s say you don’t want to be a research scientist — you still really need to think about some level of graduate school. If you can get through that, and then get some life experience, it’ll open up a lot of doors. Look at everything from museums to science centers to schools. There’s a big interest for well-trained, articulate people to help build up a strong interest in STEM and environmental education.

Also work on your own personal communication skills. I think what has allowed me to have success in this field is really having an interest in things like theater, singing and entertainment. That’s allowed me to fine-tune my communication skills.

“You could be someone who’s really smart, who knows a lot about something, but if you can’t engage and interact with your audience in a way that’s meaningful, then your success will be very limited.”

Look at your backyard. Look at your community. So much of my work has been around the world over umpteen series. It’s allowed me to travel, which I really cherish, but I love being in New England and focusing on my backyard stories. Concentrate in your own backyard. Take your passion for nature and focus on people within your community — that’s always incredibly valuable.

So we’re a fish show, you’re primarily known as a wildlife biologist, I just want to ask if have any insights into why our society makes that distinction between fish and wildlife and if that distinction is justified?

Well, that one is coastal or aquatic and one is terrestrial — I think that’s what the difference is. The two different ways of respiration play a part in that, I think, and also the cultural nuances of how we look at these different places. Maybe it’s just because they require such vastly different types of management. I also think we can heavily saturate the terrestrial environment when it comes to exploring it and knowing where things are — there’s still largely a lot of mystery to the water.

Do you have a favorite fishing story that you’ve experienced at some point in your life, like which one stands out the most to you?

There have been a lot of really cool stories with fish over the years. You know, catching giant sturgeon with my daughter in Maine and putting satellite tags and sturgeon with research folks up there. I don’t know if it’s still the record, but I caught the largest freshwater fish on record — a giant 700-pound freshwater stingray and Thailand. But to be in my backyard and catch a toad of a Striped Bass was, to me, pretty amazing.

a man fishing in a shallow stream
Sockeye Salmon fishing in Alaska. 📷 Hearst Media Production Group

Another way people connect with fish is through eating them. Do you have any favorite recipes made with Striped Bass or with salmon?

Ceviche is kind of my go-to white fish recipe — chilies, lime juice, cilantro, avocado. I kind of do a Peruvian version where you do the cold ceviche — cold brine it in the lime juice and salt, chilies, onions, tomatoes, red pepper and serve it with steamed corn, sweet potatoes and avocado. For salmon, I cook the whole salmon. If I bring it home from Alaska, which I do when I go to Alaska, I’ll cook it, pull it all apart, and make really great salmon cakes. My favorite way to cook the Striped Bass is I’ll take the whole fish and I cleaned it out and scale it. I stuff it with limes, cumin, chilies, cilantro, onions, and roll it really tight in aluminum foil, make a fire, get it to the coals and then cover the whole thing and cook it for about an hour...yeah, that’s how I like to cook it.

Is there any message you’d like to share with people about why they should care about fish?

Well, I think we should care about fish, because so much of what we have in nature depends upon fish. And every way fish have a connection to the various pathways of life in the natural world.

“So many species are dependent upon fish. And in many ways fish are a mirror of what can happen to us when we’re not good stewards of nature.”

A bird in flight carrying a striped fish in its talons
Not “just a fish” — it’s a Striped Bass (the bird’s an osprey, a fish-dependent bird of prey). 📷 Carrie Seltzer

Don’t underestimate the magnificence of fish. Think of something like a little American Eel in a remote stream hundreds of miles away from the coast that finds its way to the most mysterious, deepest, unexplored parts of our oceans. Or lamprey or even herring or cod. You know, I live in an area called Cape Cod. It was built on Atlantic Cod. When I first moved here, I would take my fishing boat, I would go out, come back with cod, and we’d eat cod. When you look out there, it looks perfect and pristine. And it is well-managed, especially if you compare it historically. But I no longer can keep cod anymore. Because cod are no longer thriving the way they should. And now we’re at a point that no matter what we do, they may not come back because the genie’s left the bottle with climate change. The Bay of Maine is the fastest warming body of water on the planet. And it’s the most important spawning ground for Atlantic Cod. And the idea that a New Englander can’t catch a cod is, I think, pretty terrifying.

All of the challenges we face today — climate change, plastic waste and trash, environmental degradation and pollution, issues of sustainability — they all have a fish connection. So by better appreciating fish by investing your interest in fish, and then wise sustainable management and conservation of fish in their environments, we’re providing a better lives for ourselves in the end.

We hope you get out enjoy all the fish, especially the fish right in your own backyard. Compiled by Katrina Liebich, Digital Media Manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. Get your weekly fish fix on our podcast Fish of the Week! Thank you to our guest, Jeff Corwin.

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