Pacific Salmon's Deranged Geographies


Not long ago, Pacific salmon geographies of harvest, consumption, and reproduction were conterminous. Forten millennia, where fish spawned was also where they were caught and eaten, but in the last two centuries industrial fishing techniques launched harvestersdownstream and out to sea, while salting, canning, and freezing technologies expanded consumption across time and space. We now eat Pacific salmon in any season anywhere in the world. The tight linkage of fish, habitat, and humans shattered, replaced by modern spaces that are increasingly irreconcilable.

This disconnect was brought home yesterday when the Monterey Bay Aquarium advised consumers not to buy salmon caught off of most of the Oregon coast. The MBA’s downgrading of salmon caught south of Cape Falcon hit the state hard. The Portland Oregonian and Oregon Public Broadcasting covered the story not only for the sake of urban consumers but for rural fishers who will suffer from any decline in consumer demand.

The proximate cause of the advisory was a difference of opinion. When the Pacific Fishery Management Council approved [PDF] an ocean-troll Chinook fishery off northern California and Oregon, the MBA objected, arguing that this would further threaten already weakened Sacramento River chinooks. This is partly an honest difference in the evaluation of risk, but it also stems from a fundamental geographical problem.

In the last centuryfishery scientists identified the genetic basis for salmon’s famous propensity to spawn in the same gravel from which it was incubated.  Their work suggests the fish (“Pacific salmon” actually refers to seven species in the genus Oncorhynchus:  cherry, chinook, chum, coho, pink, sockeye, and steelhead) should be managed not simply on a river-by-river but on a more localized, reach-by-reach basis.  During that same century, however, consumption of salmon has spread around the world and from canned to fresh and frozen products.  This technological and marketing revolution is why the MBA developed its Seafood Watch lists that now inhabit the handbags, wallets, and phone apps of environmentally conscious consumers.

Thus, while scientists perceived ever more discrete biological geographies, consumers increasingly blurred those boundaries and fishery managers tried to resolve the tensions through tools that deal poorly with either issue, let alone both. The root of this problem dates to 1787 and a constitution that delegates to the federal government authority over issues transcending state and international borders but reserves management of animals and habitat to individual states. Thus, sovereignty over salmon has been divided in the United States and was never much more coordinated in Canada, and no government has grasped well the idiosyncrasies of local environments and fishing communities. Post-aboriginal North America has yet to develop a coherent geographic response to the complexities of Pacific salmon.

This failing also includes environmentalists. For all their energy and passion, the MBA and other organizations have not offered a consistently reliable alternative geography. The MBA is correct that most Sacramento chinook migrate northward during the ocean phase of their lives, and as an Oregonian editorial noted earlier this year, these fish comprise “more than half the salmon caught off the Oregon coast.” Yet Oregon’s waters arenot simply a summer camp for California fish. Many stocks mature there, not all of which need protection.  The clunky world of ocean harvesting has no means for discriminating among fish, however, which is why the PFMC shut down the fishery the previous two summers to protect Sacramento stocks and why the MBA seeks a similar outcome this summer through market mechanisms. 

In some senses the MBA is caught by historical convention. Although salmon are bound genetically to individual streams, they are labeled as “Oregon,” “Washington,” “American,” or “Canadian” salmon by the state. TheMBAconsumer advisory thus reflects practices long out of whack with scientific standards yet tries to subvert them by complicating the labels. This is an admirable yet awkward solution. It is also inconsistent. Although the MBA recognizes conflicts between biological, managerial, and consumer space, it applies the insight arbitrarily. The California aquarium plays hardball to protect Sacramento chinooks off the Oregon coast, but it seems less concerned for endangered Columbia River chinooks, which constitute the single largest portion of the Southeast Alaska fishery.  The MBA instead calls “wild-caught salmon from Alaska a ‘Best Choice’ and is certified as sustainable to the standard of the Marine Stewardship Council.” The aquarium clarifies fuzziness in Oregon butallows it to blur again in southeast Alaska.

The challenge of salmon is to recognize its complex histories and geographies. We have inherited a set of temporal and spatial contexts that cannot be reversed and whose legacies have inertia not easily altered. Well-intentioned people have tried to reform harvest, habitat, and consumption for 140 years, but the mess only gets worse. Although it will not be easy, a more systemic response is necessary, one placing history and geography at the center of analysis, and while I too have the Seafood Watch app on my iPhone, consumer advisories are insufficient.

 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.

Image showing Chinook catch composition by state courtesy of the Wild Salmon Center, which notes that: "the total Alaska catch number includes about 80,000 chinook that are Alaska-origin hatchery 'add-ons' and certain terminal area catches, which are not included in estimates of region of origin proportions for the SE Alaska fishery."