We northwesterners say that salmon define us. These fish are icons that anchor our existence in this sodden place, especially now when the struggle to preserve salmon emerges as emblem of the deeper struggle to restore the entire landscape. Yet this local focus misses something: Salmon are not ours alone, but are and have been ensnared in a global net, an even stiffer challenge to their survival.
My context for this issue is Astoria, Oregon, my home and a place local if ever one was. The wooden gill net boats, the rubber boots, the crab traps and net floats piled in pickups all announce that the maritime culture that once permeated the whole Pacific coastal strip survives here in refugium. I can still buy local fish from local fishermen who are my neighbors.
A little market on the pier prides itself on its community-based food chain, but in all too many recent days its shelves have been empty. On such days, the helpful people who run the place send me up the street to a chain supermarket where one can buy fresh prawns from Thailand and farmed Atlantic salmon from Chile. I think locally, but I eat globally. Nothing new in this, even for my isolated little town.
In 1820, Astoria packed its first commercial salmon in barrels and shipped them to London, which is where most of the town's catch-and that from the Columbia, Fraser, and Skeena rivers and Puget Sound-flowed for nearly a century, sponsoring a decimation of the fishery from which the whole Columbia Basin has never recovered. The coastal steams of our region began flowing downhill into a global pool long before GATT or NAFTA were glimmers in a freetrader's eye.
So how do global forces bear on us today? The news is, the dominant force is not scarcity (as empty market shelves would suggest), but excess (as the price local fishermen receive for their catch would suggest). Chinook salmon, for instance, have fallen from $5 a pound 20 years ago to $1 a pound now. The biggest factor in this is aquaculture-farmed fish, salmon kept captive their whole lives in floating pens. In 1980, fish farms accounted for about one percent of all salmon production; 14 years later, the share was 36 percent, the result of a boom in Norway, Scotland, and Chile.
The marketers, especially those who would expand beyond the salmon farming already practiced in the Northwest (mostly in Puget Sound and on Vancouver Island), tell us aquaculture is good because it will take pressure off the beleaguered wild stocks and at the same time provide a hungry world with more food. The environmentalists counter that salmon farms pollute, and fish that escape the pens (mostly Atlantic salmon) can spread disease to wild fish and compete with them for food. The environmentalists are right, but set their argument aside for a second. This is not a conflict between the environment and the economic realities of feeding the world. Salmon farming fails the economic test as well.
Does salmon farming take pressure off wild stocks? A commercial fisherman is not so much interested in the number of fish caught as in the total income the catch generates. If a fishermen gets one-fifth the price per fish, he must catch five times as many. Yet this supply-demand-price haggle is but a small part of this picture, a narrow view of economics.
Despite what you may have heard in the incessant jobs-versus-environment debate, biology respects an economic logic, ordering its market with the food chain. Species use resources according to their position in the chain. The chain serves no free lunch, particularly a free protein lunch, which is to say the protein of a farmed salmon does not come out of thin air.
Salmon are predators. They derive their protein from protein-they eat fish. Estimates vary, but there is a metabolic loss in each step up the food chain. For instance, the Worldwatch Institute says it takes about five grams of captured fish protein-converted to fishmeal-to make each gram of farmed fish protein. Fishmeal is produced globally, especially from sardines off South America and especially from herring in the North Pacific.
Worldwide, salmon aquaculture is sponsoring a secondary fishery that vacuums the ocean floor. Ocean fisheries historically have depleted fish stocks, but until recently were at least somewhat selective to marketable species. However, when the end product is fishmeal, most of what shows up in a net can be ground into the mix, setting the stage for a decimation of the ecosystem the way markets for woodpulp set the stage for clearcuts. Wild salmon graze the ecosystem selectively, efficiently harvesting its protein for us. Our blundering nets know only how to destroy it and move on.
Fish farming takes the relatively low-cost protein of species like sardines and herring (much of it once consumed directly by the world's poor), reduces its volume by a factor of five, and then sells it to the world's wealthiest consumers. Meantime, wild salmon, those few that are left, migrate to oceans only to find that the fishmeal trawlers have beat them to the herring.
Locally, one does what one can. To date it has taken all we can muster, maybe more, to begin putting the salmon's world back together watershed by watershed, piece by piece. Our attention has been drawn to logging and dams and the restoration of streamside habitat. We'll go on with this work.
Yet if we are to take a reasonably realistic view of the job ahead, there are larger issues. One can travel to remote villages on Thailand's Andaman Sea and find fishermen reduced to using cyanide and dynamites to wring the last ounce out of a subsistence fishery hosed out by a passing factory trawler seeking fishmeal.
The air of desperation in this scene rings just the same in First Nation villages on Vancouver Island fighting at once fish farms and low salmon prices, and it echoes, too, in the empty shelves and empty nets of Astoria.
Astoria resident Richard Manning's most recent book is One Round River (Henry Holt, 1998). This essay is based on his work with Interrain Pacific and Ecotrust on The New Pacific Salmonscape, a regional atlas of salmon that will be published next year. A longer version of the essay is on-line and may be downloaded from www.tidepool.org.