Fish farms challenge our commitment to the wild


  • Fish scale illustration

    Dean Rohrer

If you’ve ever been to the Pike Street Market in Seattle, you’ve undoubtedly witnessed one of the pinnacles of fishmonger bravado. Order up a whole salmon at Pike Place Fish and employees snap into action, shouting like a platoon of marines. One hoists the fish you’ve chosen from an ice-heaped display table. Another dashes to the edge of the main counter 20 feet away, holding up a sheaf of butcher paper like a catcher’s mitt. The salmon is lofted through the air — often within inches of a customer’s ear — and caught with breathtaking precision. The pitcher and catcher barely make eye contact.

“We throw every fish we sell, and we’ve only hit a few people,” says Dick Yokoyama, manager of Pike Place Fish. “We don’t drop many — maybe one out of a thousand.” Pretty good odds for a spectacle that’s repeated about 200 times a day.

Over the past decade, consumers across the nation have unknowingly witnessed an equally miraculous feat — inexpensive salmon fillets and steaks, available year round, at $3 a pound. This bounty, whether found in open-air markets, or under the cold fluorescent lights of a supermarket, has been brought to us by salmon farms. It’s a quiet revolution that has transformed salmon from a white-tablecloth item into a meal that almost anyone can afford.

As you’ll read in this issue of High Country News, the success of salmon farming may be a Pandora’s box for fishing communities and wild Pacific salmon. But it also has implications for the American psyche.

Protecting wild Pacific salmon has been a century-long struggle for Northwesterners, who watched salmon runs spiral downward as dams blocked migration, and logging, grazing and development in the region’s watersheds decimated spawning habitat. This crusade brought conservationists together with native people and commercial fishermen and women, whose livelihoods depend, in large part, on wild salmon. Their campaign sought not only to protect and restore the wondrous ecology of salmon, but also to revive the commercial value of the fish in the Pacific Northwest.

By the early ’90s, this regional struggle had crystalized into a national cause. As a result, the federal government finally assumed its legal obligation to protect Northwest salmon stocks under the Endangered Species Act. It brought federal clout and dollars to salmon recovery efforts. But something else happened in the process that was at least as significant: The story and meaning of salmon penetrated the American mind. Salmon helped create the will to have a national dialogue about dams and river restoration, and the fish took its place alongside grizzly bears and bald eagles as a vital and symbolic piece of our natural heritage.

Enter this new player. Salmon farms threaten the health of wild stocks. They’ve taken a bite out of the market share of commercial fisherman. The multinational companies that run fish farms say that they’re working to be better neighbors and to prevent future harm to wild stocks. But even if these challenges are met, farmed salmon may be the Eucharist in the Church of Apathy.

For those of us who don’t live in salmon country, who haven’t tasted the moist fecund air and heard the mumbling brooks; who haven’t seen (and will never see) the waters writhing with an in-migration of these powerful fish, the abundance of farmed salmon is an opportunity to let our collective conscience slumber again. It allows us to put down this remote and complex riddle of habitat protection, federal laws and treaties, and hydropower-producing dams.

Why, after all, should the average citizen care about wild salmon, when supermarket coolers are piled to the gills with salmon meat? As Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, R, once famously asked, “How can salmon be endangered when you can buy them in cans in supermarkets?”

We laugh, but it’s easy to see the results of similar unconscious choices of the past: The great bison herds that once roared across the Plains are gone, and in their place we have industrial cattle feedlots. Now, with the advent of fish farms, we’re seeing the same wholesale replacement of creation with industrialized food production. This is a dangerous illusion: that we can enjoy the bounty of nature without protecting rivers, streams and landscapes.

Is the nation ready to really look at what’s on the end of its fork? At this point, it’s all up in the air — like the salmon at the Pike Street Market. The difference is, this is not a game of catch that consumers should watch from the sidelines.

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