Rediscovering the known


This may seem a "Shaggy Dog" story, and for that I apologize, but there’s no way to make my scholarly point without digressing into my past. The proximate reason is an announcement this week by the British Columbia Supreme Court requiring an investigative committee to release all information on sea lice infestations and disease outbreaks from salmon farms on the BC coast. The ruling triggered predictable press releases by industry reps and environmental critics, but arguments about whether the document trail should begin in 2002, 2001, or 2000 misses a key point: This problem did not begin with the millennium, but in the 1970s.

In 1977, I worked as a salmon puller off the Oregon coast. With a poor run and lousy prices, we whined a lot that summer. Then a rumor circulated about efforts to develop salmon ranching in Oregon. Private firms wanted to run hatcheries, release fish into the sea, and harvest and sell the returns. At the center of each tale was Jack Donaldson, director of Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, investor in a firm called Ore-Aqua, and son of Lauren Donaldson, a kind of mad scientist at the University of Washington who believed he could solve all salmon problems with bigger, better hatcheries. As is typical in the fishing world, every "fact" was laden with conspiracy theories.

Knowing this, a few of us decided to do some research. We learned that firms had indeed sought operating licenses since 1971 and that Donaldson indeed had conflicts of interest. Most fishers’ primary concern was that operators would seek property rights to salmon, posing massive regulatory challenges to ocean trollers. These fears were not fantastical. Privatization was first suggested by none other than George Perkins Marsh, author of Man and Nature, in an 1857 report on fisheries to the Vermont legislature, and free market ideologues regularly raise the idea anew, believing privatization cures all ills. For a community that encodes harvest data and guards jealously all secrets, it takes little to work fishers into a paranoid tizzy. Between our research and court decisions awarding treaty Indians 50 percent of some harvests, trollers donned shirts reading "Let Fishermen Fish" and "Real Oregonians Don’t Eat Feedlot Salmon" and recounted to tourists the nefarious plots to destroy them.

Most of this now seems ridiculous. The trolling industry did implode, not because of conspiracies (though Alaska’s Senator Ted Stevens did perform dark magic during the renegotiation of the salmon treaty with Canada in the mid-1980s) but because the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and El Niño pretty much whacked all Oregon runs for two decades. One insight lingers, however, and it directly informs how I read this week’s events in BC. In our research on salmon ranching, we ran across early findings about the ecological and economic implications of the salmon farm industry that was then expanding beyond Norway.

Already apparent was a problem with concentrated fecal deposits and hypoxic conditions in fjords where pens operated. Since then, research has exposed an expanding array of issues: farm-introduced antibiotics and estrogens circulating through marine food chains, undeclared wars on pinnipeds and cetaceans preying on penned fish, sea lice infestations, carcinogens in the dyes used to color farmed flesh, bioaccumulating toxins from feeds that place farm salmon at a higher trophic level than wild fish, and fears that genetic cross-breeding and hatchery diseases will harm wild stocks. But even this is not my main concern.

What bothers me most is how the present story repeats an insidious pattern in the global history of farmed salmon. When Denmark, Scotland, and Ireland received the first applications to farm their inlets, emerging corporations insisted they had learned from the past, that they’d solved old problems, that the future was so bright we had to wear shades. They did not, and problems recurred, but the industry sang the same song in New Brunswick, Maine, Washington, British Columbia, Chile, and Tasmania.

Each time credulous politicians, left and right, dug the tune. Here was a new market, as though the old fishery, which had lasted oh, maybe, ten millennia in some places, no longer mattered. In the end the old problems did return, often in more vexing form. Across the world we see similar travails with sea lice, marine mammal conflicts, hatchery diseases, bioaccumulating toxins, and antibiotic resistance because, even though politicians do not grasp this, ecologic insights and evolutionary theory are comparable from one fjord to the next.

In the end we are rediscovering well-known problems. The release of documents, which the industry will resist, will only add to the pile of knowledge. The real issue is not the industry--which just keeps doing what it has always done--but the politicians who are seduced by happy pitches and campaign contributions instead of heeding decades of good science.

Joseph Taylor teaches in the history and geography departments 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.

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