How to Eat a Fish

On a global scale, overfishing is destroying the world’s ocean ecosystems and the human societies that have long depended upon them. Yet, closer to home, the energy and commitment needed to save threatened wild salmon comes from the same people who love to catch and eat them.

By Tim Connor

In his artful book, “The Race to Save the Lord God Bird,” Phillip Hoose recounts a small but still important part of American history that doesn’t get covered in high school. It’s about how Boston’s Harriet Hemenway decided to do something about the wholesale slaughter of egrets and herons in the southern United States. The birds weren’t being gunned down for sport. They were being killed for their feathers, to provide the “airgrette” plumes that were so fashionable in the latter part of the 19th century as ornaments for ladies’ hats.

Hemenway was so repulsed by the carnage, particularly on Great and Snowy Egrets, that she started the Audubon Society. The well-organized Audubon movement led to the so-called “Plume War” of the early 20th century and the hard fought, eventual preservation of the birds. Still, the protections did not occur quickly enough to prevent the demise of the magnificent Ivory-billed Woodpecker, “the Lord God Bird,” of Hoose’s book. It’s possible, based on recent reported sightings in Arkansas and the Florida Panhandle, that the Ivory-bill may have avoided extinction somehow. But its decimation between 1885 and 1935 was due both to hunting for its valuable feathers, and the leveling of southern old growth forests for lumber.

All of which is to illustrate that the chainsaw-like destructiveness of modern consumerism (with heart-breaking effects on the natural world and human cultures dependent upon natural resources) isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been with us for a while, and one of the things we’ve learned is that the profit-chasing corporations who reach from Patagonia to Siberia to Amazonia to the remotest parts of the blue Pacific for the fodder, wares, and oils they want to sell us, don’t start their days with soul-searching meditations on what’s good for humanity or the planet.

As consumers, we have to both rationally and emotionally assess our complicity in this. In the 1870s, a young woman who wanted a lovely feather for her Sunday hat may have been oblivious to the senseless killing of a magnificent bird 1,500 miles away. But that didn’t make her less responsible. So it is today when we walk into a market with the power in our wallets to either encourage the bulldozing of a rain forest, or the growing of healthy organic food on a local farm using environmentally sustainable methods. We can choose not to know more than what we see on the shelf. But that hardly makes us innocent to the consequences of our choices.

Welcome to the truths and consequences of modern consumerism. For those who enjoy seafood as part of a healthy diet (you know, the Omega-3 fatty acids that demonstrably reduce our risk of heart disease) you should take the time to read marine biologist’s Daniel Pauly’s article, “Aquacalypse Now, The End of Fish,” in the current issue of The New Republic.

Even though it’s not his purpose, the details of the oceanic plunder that Pauly describes in his article are enough to make a reasonable person give up fish altogether. The industrialization of ocean fishing since the 1950s, he writes, has become a “giant Ponzi scheme” that first destroyed northern ocean fisheries of cod, hake, flounder, sole, etc., and has since moved southward to continue devouring every discernible stock of commercially valuable fish.Chinook salmon

Of course, these southern journeys of northern fishing fleets have already caused global political friction and social consequences. You may, for example, wonder why Somalians have resorted to brazen acts of high seas piracy. Not to excuse the hostage-taking buccaneers altogether, but the Somalians would want you to know that their once tuna-rich offshore waters have been decimated by foreign fishing fleets.

“While the climate crisis gathers front-page attention on a regular basis, people–even those who profess great environmental consciousness–continue to eat fish as if it were a sustainable practice,” Pauly writes. “But eating a tuna roll at a sushi restaurant should be considered no more environmentally benign than driving a Hummer or harpooning a manatee. In the past 50 years, we have reduced the populations of large commercial fish, such as bluefin tuna, cod, and other favorites, by a staggering 90 percent. One study, published in the prestigious journal Science, forecast that, by 2048, all commercial fish stocks will have ‘collapsed,’ meaning that they will be generating 10 percent or less of their peak catches. Whether or not that particular year, or even decade, is correct, one thing is clear: Fish are in dire peril, and, if they are, then so are we.”

You have to read deeper into Pauly’s piece to see that his prescription is not to end fishing or the eating of fish, but for people to pressure governments directly “to stop subsidizing the fishing-industrial complex” that is behind the Ponzi scheme he lays out.

I found myself agreeing with Pauly’s arguments for reforming commercial fishing regulation and with his gentle critique of efforts like those of the Marine Stewardship Council and the Monterey Bay Aquarium that issue consumer guides for seafood. Although I have the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s website bookmarked on my browser, I agree with Pauly that it’s still confusing to try to figure out what fish, from what fishery, from what fishing method, is okay and which is the one I should avoid. So, apart from doing as Pauly suggests, and look for my next opportunity to work for better fishing laws around the world, what am I to do, as a consumer? One of the aspects of this conundrum I haven’t mentioned is food safety and mercury contamination in particular. I can’t even talk about eating seafood around the office without a certain lawyer (and she knows who she is) pouncing in with a mercury warning. Good point. The temptation, clearly, is to walk away from the fish counter altogether.

With that in mind I thought of Sam Mace, the Spokane-based activist for Save Our Wild Salmon. Sam and I have had a passing acquaintance for years and I was curious about her reaction to Pauly’s article and its Rachel Carson-like warnings about ocean fishing. For starters, one thing I know by social osmosis is that the battles over the Northwest’s signature salmon are as difficult and heart-wrenching as they come. Sam Mace and her group have really hung in there, patiently and passionately doing their good work, because of their love for the fish. That love is both for wild salmon as a food source and for what the health and viability of wild salmon stocks means for our regional identity as a people.

When I met with her to talk about Pauly’s piece she was sipping a cup of coffee and wearing a brown “Dry Fly” distillery sweatshirt accented with orange lettering and her own shoulder-length copper hair. She said she thought Pauly’s article was “generally helpful” because of the heavy-lifting it did in trying to raise awareness for what is clearly a continuing global crisis in the world’s fisheries.

Yet, because Sam looks at this broad problem through the experience of trying to protect wild salmon, she was eager to point out and emphasize some crucial facts and lessons about Northwest salmon that are beyond the reach of Pauly’s global analysis.

Sam Mace really wants you to eat the fish she’s trying to save. In fact, what she’s discovered is that the people willing to work hardest to save the salmon are the Northwesterners who either grew up fishing for salmon with their fathers, mothers and siblings, or those who rely upon a healthy salmon fishery for their livelihood. If fishing for salmon were banned in Washington, she says, “I would lose the people who work the hardest and those are the fisherman who connect with what it’s all about.”

The most important difference is this one: it is not overfishing, neither recreational nor commercial, that’s putting wild Northwest salmon in peril. Rather, what the science says is that it is dams and other obstacles to healthy inland habitat that are the real problem.  They’ve not only reduced the areas where salmon can spawn, but dams take a huge toll on salmon both when they try to swim upstream to spawn and when young fish try to reach the ocean to grow to maturity.

The Snake River salmon and steelhead runs, Sam notes, are closely monitored and what the numbers show is that dams are responsible for the lion’s share of fish mortality, whereas ocean and in-river fishing take a paltry number of fish by comparison.

The regional controversies over wild salmon inevitably turn to the issue of the four dams on the lower Snake River whose elimination, advocates for the salmon contend, is the most sensible single solution to restoring and securing the long term health of wild salmon populations generally, and Snake River salmon especially. The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) has vigorously opposed dam breaching and so have a succession of both Republican and Democratic politicians who don’t want to anger the inland Northwest farm communities who’ve used slack water barges on the lower Snake as a cheaper means (before 1975 trucks and rail cars were used) to move grains and other crops to markets.

It’s a clash that involves economic arguments but it’s abundantly clear that the dams are also powerful cultural symbols that amp up the politics.

One memorable visitor to this landscape was Blaine Harden, a national award winning reporter for the Washington Post who grew up in Moses Lake and returned to the region to write a powerfully eloquent book, “A River Lost,” about what he found. Here’s how he captured it in his introduction.

“When I returned home, I could not help but bridle as suburbanites from Portland and Seattle sneered at the Columbia Basin as an environmental wasteland populated by cowboys on welfare. Yet, the more I saw of the puddled remains of the river, the more I felt like a stranger looking in on a foreign way of life. The familiar landscape was deeply unsettling. The community I grew up in seemed contaminated by self-deception. This book is about the destruction of the great river of the West by well-intentioned Americans whose lives embodied a pernicious contradiction. They prided themselves on self-reliance, yet depended on subsidies. They distrusted the federal government, yet allowed it to do as it pleased with the river and the land through which it flowed. As long as there was federal money, they did not mind that farmers wasted water, that dams pushed salmon to extinction, or that plutonium workers recklessly spilled radioactive gunk beside the river.”

Harden’s 1996 book illuminated the maddening political landscape that Sam Mace and her peers have to criss-cross to do their work. And in that work what Sam says has been the biggest problem is Washington state Democrats who, for fear of alienating a heavily-subsidized region that votes Republican, have worked against salmon recovery by opposing removal of the lower Snake dams.

“It [Pauly's article] is helpful,” Sam said, “but I’m dealing with an issue where the bad actors are BPA, Murray, Cantwell, Gregoire and Locke.”

Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell are the state’s U.S. Senators and Christine Gregoire the Governor. Gary Locke is the former Governor who is now the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. All are Democrats who’ve raked in millions of dollars in campaign contributions from people whose position on how to save wild salmon would be indistinguishable from that Sam Mace and Save Our Wild Salmon.

If there’s another fascinating irony here, it is this one: Sam Mace really wants you to eat the fish she’s trying to save. In fact, what she’s discovered is that the people willing to work hardest to save the salmon are the Northwesterners who either grew up fishing for salmon with their fathers, mothers and siblings, or those who rely upon a healthy salmon fishery for their livelihood.

If fishing for salmon were banned in Washington, she says, “I would lose the people who work the hardest and those are the fisherman who connect with what it’s all about.”

Whether you catch your own salmon or buy wild caught salmon here’s another useful fact. Eating wild caught salmon is healthier than eating farm-raised salmon because researchers have found that farm-raised salmon contain ten times or higher concentrations of toxins like PCBs and dioxins.  Although a 2008 study found mercury levels higher in wild salmon than farmed salmon, the levels in both fishes were far below levels of human health concern. Thus, while EPA has issued health warnings advising people not to eat shark and swordfish and recommending limits on tuna steak consumption, it notes that salmon is among five commonly eaten species of seafood that are relatively low in mercury.

Sam and others who work on salmon recovery issues also make a sharp distinction between farm-raised salmon and wild and hatchery salmon because of the well-documented harmful environmental affects of salmon farming. Those effects include the introduction and spreading of diseases that are harmful to wild salmon and steelhead. For those interested in knowing more about how to buy salmon, you can download Trout Unlimited’s “Salmon-Wise Consumer’s Buyer’s Guide” here.

There is, of course, an ocean of more information out there about wild Pacific salmon and the profoundly important work being done to sustain them not just as a living museum piece, but as a part of the region’s ecology and culture. A lot of the work that Sam and Save Our Wild Salmon are doing involves the patient facilitating of conversations and understandings between farmers and fisherman, including commercial fisherman who, as much as growers, depend on the environment for their livelihoods. Part of what inspires her is being able to foresee and help build alliances that, against the history of this extraordinary controversy, seem improbable at best.

Here, at least, a splendid common denominator is a dinner plate with a succulent filet of wild salmon on it. It is part of Save Our Wild Salmon’s practice to host dinners featuring salmon both to raise money and to get the message out, including the message that it’s okay to eat salmon.

“That’s why we do them,” she says. “The message is that you can feel good about eating wild salmon but we also, as consumers of salmon, have responsibilities to write our Senators and our governor and help fight the important fights for the fish.”

To stay current on the efforts to restore the region’s wild salmon runs, and how you can help, visit the Save Our Wild Salmon’s website.