25 things vanishing in America, part 2: Wild salmon

I didn't expect to be crying reading a food book, but there I was, reading Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon's book on local eating, Plenty. I was reading of the times that inspired the book's title, in the 18th, 19th and turn of the 20th centuries. The authors wrote touchingly of the Salish Sea around Vancouver, B.C., teeming with the same sorts of wildlife that must have once crowded the rivers, streams and hills of my hometown, Portland, Ore. So it was this that had me in tears. In 1907, MacKinnon writes, the coal baron James Dunsmuir anchored his steamship on the North Pacific coast and, with four men, shot a dozen bears in a morning. "Those bears would have gathered for the coming of the salmon. Until the salmon have been considered, nothing has been considered. The Pacific coast is a salmon landscape, salmon rivers and salmon forests, and in a "big year," the peak of a four-year cycle, 50 million sockeye may once have moved upstream... just so much life, such exuberance of life."

MacKinnon goes on to write about how abundant was the wild food of the Pacific Northwest in centuries past, how an anthropologist wrote, "frequently [food] was so abundant that with the most extravagant feasting they could not use it all up." And then, he writes, "that is exactly what happened. We used it all up." And no more so than the salmon.

The salmon is deeply, deeply in trouble.

Early in the summer of 2008, as I was eagerly awaiting my first season of fresh fish in my recent commitment to eat local, Oregon and Washington canceled the commercial Chinook salmon season. It was the first time in 160 years; and all evidence points to more moratoriums in coming years. Wild salmon are vastly overfished; Norwegian-owned companies sit offshore all over the West Coast with long net-cages. And the habitats where young salmon spawn are troubled; in the Snake River, where Oregon salmon spawn, dams impede the wild fish; Californian cities are draining water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The 2008 ban was blamed on a temporary decline in plankton and small fish. But what caused the decline? Some environmentalists think the problem is larger than a "temporary" once-in-a-hundred-years aberration.

New York Times writer Taras Grescoe says he's no longer eating salmon, pointing to the grocery stores of America, where 90% of the salmon is farm-raised and, he believes, unhealthy both to the eater and the environment; there's evidence that parasites in the enormous net-cages run by salmon farms are treated with pesticides, and that salmon are being fed soy.

In the Sacramento River Basin, officials have already been weighing -- and probably will agree to -- canceling the Chinook fishing season again this year. Options are currently being considered in Washington and Oregon, though most of the options look bad for wild fish.

As for me: I'm not eating fish, but for the occasional can of sardines or anchovies. I'm getting my "good fats" from Oregon walnuts and hazelnuts, and mourning the loss of the king of wild fish. Perhaps a decade or more of abstinence -- and huge changes in global fish farming policy -- will bring back the times of plenty. Until then, I'm sadly sticking to food raised on solid ground.

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