Mystery Salmon


Pull up to any fish buying station in the Salish Sea and you will likely spy many stupid grins.  The reason, as Mary Ellen Walling crowed last week, is that “The Sockeye are back!”  The news is as good as it gets in this long suffering fishery.  In the last few decades sockeye runs have underperformed so often that the dominant question among researchers and fishers has been what happened to the disappearing salmon.  In fact, last year there was no fishery at all.  Thus for anyone who pays attention to salmon, the last month has represented a violent cognitive rupture as Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) had to repeatedly up its estimate of the number of sockeye running into the Fraser River to the now historic figure of 34 million.  Nobody alive has seen this many salmon, not since the ill-fated year of 1913, when a railroad-induced landslide at Hells Gate effectively destroyed an already declining fishery.  There are no experiential reference points.  We instead lean on aging stories of the good times told by people now long dead, and we struggle with, as one native fisher remarked, “overwhelming emotions.”

Indeed, this is the best of times, and as is wont in such circumstances, the spin has been fast and furious.  The DFO Minister cited the run as evidence of the Conservative government’s dedication to conservation.  A. Brian Peckford, who works in the offshore oil drilling industry, claimed the run proves that the problem with Fraser River salmon is not decline but “variation.”  Walling, who is executive director of the B.C. Salmon Farmer’s Association, pummeled critics of aquaculture, including biologist and activist  Alexandra Morton, who has linked industry practices to sea lice outbreaks and devastated pink salmon runs in the Broughton Archipelago.  According to Walling, the run proves salmon farms are not a problem.  Boldest of all has been the Marine Stewardship Council, which in late July, in an act that can only be described as stunningly prescient, anointed the Fraser sockeye fishery as an MSC-accredited sustainably managed fishery.

Given all these verbal high fives, one might ask why fishers and scientists seem so ill at ease with the good news.  The problem, of course, is history.  Contrary to spin-makers’ claims, this is probably not the dawn of a new era, and the ninety-seven years since 1913 do still matter.  Both before and after the MSC listing, environmental groups expressed shock that a fishery which the Canadian government is still studying with hopes of understanding why it so often buffaloes regulators, and that the Fraser Basin Council in 2006 described as “getting worse” over the last three decades, should even be considered sustainable.  Also unnerving is the realization that no one foresaw this boon.  The mere fact that DFO had to revise its estimate twice suggests the limits of expert comprehension.  Former fisheries advisor and author Dennis Brown cautioned that “No one person has got this right,” and even leading fisheries zoologist Carl Walters admitted that “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”  Thus, as John Ryan noted while reporting on the sudden good times among Lummi fishers in the San Juan Islands, “Nobody expects this year’s supersize run of sockeye to repeat any time soon.”

Health of fish in the Fraser River. Image courtesy of the Fraser Basin Council. Click on image for larger view.

History dogs this fishery in ways too profound for easy sound bites.  The good times are indeed back, at least this summer, but for anyone invested in the long term health of salmon and the communities which depend upon them, this is not the moment for a “mission accomplished” fist pump.  The more we study the past of this and other fisheries, the more we bump up against the limits of understanding.  Salmon fisheries are not conducted in a laboratory.  Oceans, river basins, societies, and markets are each profoundly complex open systems, and salmon draw these together in ways that make it extremely difficult to understand what happened even in hindsight. And, as DFO proved once again, they are nearly impossible to predict with consistency.  This is the lesson running through the brains behind of all those silly smiles along the fishing docks.  The past lives on in these people, and their cautionary celebrations are a good sign.

Joseph Taylor teaches in the history and geography departments at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver. He is the author of Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis, which won the American Society of Environmental History’s best book award. His forthcoming book, Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk, will be released in October.  He lives in Oregon.