It’s not climate change, it’s ocean change


We tend to think of nature as a bulwark against change. We spell it with a capital “N” and imagine it to be a timeless rock of stability against a sea of discontinuity. It should not surprise us that Europeans and North Americans turned nature into refuge from modernity a full century before John Muir crowed in 1901 that “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity,” or that our attraction has only grown in the century since Muir. Thus the erosion of that rock through habitat change and extinctions is both a cultural and ecological crisis. It is why environmental writer Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, and why so many readers embraced his thesis.

My research has traced a small corner of this story involving Pacific salmon. The decline and disappearance of runs along the West coast of North America is a real and dire problem. Salmon are part of the fabric of ecosystems and societies. Pretty much everyone understands the role fish have played in the diets, economy, and spirituality of aboriginal and commercial fishers, but biologists have also discovered the fish’s chemical contribution across the region’s forests and fauna [PDF]. In so many ways the decline of salmon represents a significant material and cultural loss. Xanthippe Augerot’s Atlas of Pacific Salmon offers a particularly arresting vision of this sad state, one that expands our focus to encompass the entire Pacific Rim. The visually-compelling State of the Salmon map gallery has two maps in particular that illustrate how the range of salmon has shrunk in the last two centuries, especially along its southern edges.

Lost habitat, shrinking ranges, and ecological and cultural disruption: these documented problems are deeply worrying, yet they are but half the story.  Nature is not a static and balanced thing, and salmon are an acute example of its dynamism. In the early 1980s, fish biologists stood slack jawed as coho began to recolonize the Toutle River less than a year after the explosion of Mount St. Helens. In the early 1990s, Inuits began to catch a strange fish [pdf] in the Sachs River. Local fishers had to ask visiting scientists to identity the species because there was no living memory of Pacific sockeye and pink salmon on Banks Island, deep in the Arctic Ocean. Further new sightings followed in the far North, including the capture of a coho in Great Bear Lake in Northwest Territories. A soon to be published study suggests these anecdotes are part of a broad shift in the ranges and abundances of all Pacific salmons, and studies by William Cheung in 2009 [PDF] and last week reveal that the northward trend includes many many species across the northern hemisphere’s oceans.

Driving these phenomena is a very unsettling insight, best articulated by John Bruno and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg: “It’s not climate change, it’s ocean change.” When it comes to ocean nature, home range is now a moving target. One response is to shrug. Nature is bigger than us. There is no way to stop it, so why worry? This is the reaction of free-market fundamentalists willing to concede climate change but unwilling to respond. If it were so simple, if this was just about getting used to a more northern geography, I would probably sympathize. But, of course, it is not that simple. For one thing, as anthropologist Randall Schalk noted in a seldom-read essay—largely because only nerds dare read a book titled For Theory Building in Archeology—not all parts of a species’ range are equal. The far edges of salmon country have always been iffy terrain. Although fish did spawn in Baja California, for example, they were not a reliable resource because local creeks were intermittent at best. The same held for habitat in the western Rockies and Yukon Basin. From an ecological standpoint, salmon’s northward shift means they are expanding into exceedingly unstable areas, while the most fecund portions of their historical ranges from northern California to southern British Columbia are less reliable. But as Heather Goldstone notes, ecological developments also contain social dimensions. Communities around the hemisphere suffer wrenching dislocations as fish go away, and the institutions and cultures that depend on fisheries have no good options. Northern tourism is no more socially equitable than in the West, and gentrification seems more and more the fate for every working community from Newfoundland to Kamchatka to southern Chile. The longer this goes on, the more of the global periphery seems to take on aspects of the North American West. This is not a good thing.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Joseph Taylor teaches in the history department at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver. He is the author of Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk, which won the National Outdoor Book Award, and Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis, which won the American Society of Environmental History’s best book award. He lives in Oregon.