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Know the West

How much do salmon still shape the Northwest?

A new book seeks answers about the future of the iconic fish.


It’s hard to know where to begin in the “mythopoeic” journey that is Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, From River to Table, but the spotting tower of a reef-net barge in Puget Sound might be the place. Reef-netting is an ancient Pacific Northwest technique that, as author Langdon Cook explains, is now the world’s rarest — and most sustainable — form of salmon fishing. Just offshore, sunken cables with plastic flagging shape a long funnel that converges over an underwater net strung between two barges. “Sometimes a school looks like an overhead cloud,” a fisher tells Cook, “like a shadow moving across the ripples.” Sometimes the fish are plainly visible, “a perfect line or a V, like a flock of geese.” When they swim over the net, the spotter calls out, the winches are tripped, and instantly the net rises with salmon in its fold “like a bunch of kids bouncing on a trampoline.”

In Upstream, Cook is that proverbial spotter, high above the Northwest, but he’s also boots on the ground and waders in the water. The book is an ambitious exploration of salmon country and the daunting physical and political challenges facing these totemic fish. Admiring freshly caught salmon at Seattle’s Pike’s Place Market, where the book begins, Cook reflects, “I understood that great runs of salmon had shaped this landscape as much as the glaciers and volcanoes and waves of new immigrants.” He sets out to see the extent to which salmon still shape the Northwest even as we shape them, making a pilgrimage into mismanagement and recovery efforts, past and present.

Reefnetting in Puget Sound, off Lummi Island, Washington, September 2009.
Edmund Lowe /Alamy Stock Photo

Cook searches widely for answers. Though a fly-fisher, he deigns to troll a reservoir on the Columbia River, once “the greatest nursery on the planet” but now home to a place called the “Toilet Bowl,” where boats turn sad circles hoping for a hatchery chinook that’s topped Bonneville Dam. He attends a Native salmon ceremony in Cascade Locks and plies an unidentified river on the Oregon Coast with the director of the Wild Salmon Center, Guido Rahr, who believes that lonely, undisturbed streams in second-growth forests offer today’s best conservation opportunities. But, as Cook notes, “Money tends to follow the problems, not the opportunities.” Though $15 billion has been spent in the Columbia Basin since 1978, none of its wild strains of salmon have been removed from the endangered species list.

Salmon, of course, extend far beyond Washington. In a patched-up wetsuit, Cook dives into California’s Yuba River to see adult salmon holding on their nests, called redds. He describes one fish: “In just a foot of water, its pectoral fins (were) working like frayed Chinese fans to keep it upright, the delicate lavender color turned a jaundice yellow.” Following “the magnetic pull of Alaska,” Cook rides with a gillnetter down the Copper River to haul in silver, or coho, salmon on flats “aquamarine as far as the eye can see.”

Upstream is first-rate literary journalism, a deep dive into surprisingly disparate milieus united by a passion for the king of fish. Cook pivots easily from place to place, and aficionado to aficionado. The characters he renders are both salty and refined, and the connections between fishers, farmers and conservationists are drawn taut, with real tension at times. Upstream is also a classic commodity narrative, à la John McPhee’s Oranges. We learn how Pacific salmon ultimately migrate to a fine restaurant or home kitchen, and we even learn the secret to preparing them: slowly, at 220 degrees.

Much Pacific salmon habitat is beyond “restoration,” as Cook and his guides point out, painfully — there is no going back to pristine river systems — but “reconciliation” is still possible with creative thinking. “The best we can do to heal old wounds is to reconcile the land with new uses that help to bring it into some sort of harmony,” Cook says. In California’s drained Central Valley, that might mean managing the surprisingly wild Yolo Bypass — which receives spillover from the Sacramento River — so that adult salmon can survive in it, or flooding rice paddies so that fingerlings can capitalize on this shallow, solar-fed soup of algae and phytoplankton. On the Oregon coast, balance might mean bolstering hatchery programs on a river or two while barring them from the rest, so that they remain “strongholds” for wild genes. But the major takeaway from Upstream is that gut-level knowledge is required for real change. We need to get outside, as Cook does, and see these fish and their rivers. “You feel that?” Rene Henry, the lead scientist for Trout Unlimited in California, asks as he and Cook watch a salmon swim up the muddy, mostly dewatered San Joaquin River. “That’s your heart.”

Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, From River to Table
Langdon Cook
336 pages, hardcover; $27. Ballantine Books, 2017.

Nick Neely is the author of Coast Range: A Collection from the Pacific Edge. His most recent story for HCN was about a newly recognized species of bird in Idaho, the Cassia crossbill. Follow @nsneely