May 19, 2006
By Anne Marie Distefano
A state of emergency now is in effect in seven Oregon counties: all of Tillamook, Lincoln, Coos and Curry counties, and portions of Lane, Douglas and Clatsop. It was declared by Gov. Ted Kulongoski on April 24 as a response to a crisis of the commercial salmon fishing industry.
In order to protect severely depleted stocks of Klamath River chinook, the federal government is drastically curtailing both commercial and sport fishing — a double blow to the coastal economy.
This is just the latest chapter in the long saga of salmon in the Northwest. Like many sagas, it begins with an idyllic past, in a legendary time before recorded history. Natives of the Columbia River basin fished for salmon for thousands of years.
Then there was a transgression — you could call it the arrival of Europeans, or you could call it the heedless overfishing at the turn of the 20th century. The rest of the story is taken up with trials, tribulations, setbacks and small victories.
There are very few controversies in Oregon that don’t involve salmon in one way or another. Whether it’s the rights of native tribes, logging in fire-damaged forests, water rights for farmers or Measure 37 land-use issues, salmon are swimming through the middle of it. And that means that when you eat salmon you’re engaged in politics, like it or not.
You’ve probably heard that it’s better to buy wild salmon than farmed salmon. It’s true, even though many strains of wild salmon are endangered. There are viable wild salmon runs farther north, mostly in Alaska — the famed Copper River season opened May 15 — and the more you know about the way salmon farms work, the less you’ll want to do with them.
Lynn Hunter is the Pacific Northwest representative of a global effort called the Pure Salmon Campaign, which is sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based group National Environmental Trust. Currently there are no salmon farms in Oregon, but there are a number in Washington state; in British Columbia, where Hunter is based, they are prevalent. The farms are huge net enclosures, in coastal waters, each containing millions of nonindigenous fish.
“A floating feedlot” is how Hunter describes a typical salmon farm. Close quarters breed diseases and parasites such as sea lice, which can spread to wild fish. When the salmon are treated for lice, the treatment kills nearby crustaceans like shrimp and crab. Fecal matter and excess food sink, smothering the sea floor. Antibiotics and dyes in the food are dispersed in the water. Farm fish escape, contaminating native stocks.
Eliminating fish farms altogether is not the goal of the Pure Salmon Campaign. “We feel there are ways we can do this better,” says Hunter, and to that end, she advocates for “closed containment” facilities, where fish can be raised without contaminating their surroundings. The only problem is, contained tanks are a lot more expensive than net enclosures.
Part of Hunter’s job is to talk directly to fish farming companies, to try to persuade them to change their ways. The other part is to drum up consumer pressure, from individuals (“In B.C. very few people will buy farmed salmon,” she says) and from food distributors.
At Costco’s annual general meeting she proposed that the company refuse to buy salmon from open-net farms — she says they were “very interested.”
Fish farms hurt Oregon’s fishing industry by depressing the retail price of salmon. Paying more for wild salmon is one way to vote with your wallet, and there are others. A group called Salmon Safe certifies farms and wineries that take measures to restore waterways that run through their property, so look for products with a Salmon Safe label.
If you’re feeling confused, Ecotrust’s Web site, www.ecotrust.org, is a great source of information. The nonprofit, which is based in Portland, sponsors a wide range of projects, from accessible consumer-education campaigns to in-depth scientific research.
“We’re interested in ensuring the biodiversity of the different salmon species,” explains Lauren Johnson, Ecotrust’s director of communications and development. The group works to promote conservation of inland salmon habitat, and they sponsor a sort of salmon fan club called Salmon Nation.
“Salmon Nation” also is the name of a book published by Ecotrust that provides an introduction to the history of and culture around salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Color-coded maps show the historical range of different species, compared with their range today (pretty depressing), and there are explanations of fish farms, watershed protection groups, the various types of boats used to catch salmon and the role of hatcheries.
Hatchery-bred salmon account for well over half of the salmon in Oregon streams. Smolts (baby salmon) are released to swim in the wild, to augment future catches. In other words, “wild caught” salmon isn’t necessarily truly wild salmon.
For more than 100 years, hatcheries have been considered a good way to increase salmon stock, and only recently have studies indicated they may contribute to a reduction in the numbers of wild fish.
In 2003, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife operated 33 hatcheries, at a cost of $22.9 million. The money comes from a combination of state and federal funds. The hatcheries now follow guidelines including the Native Fish Conservation Policy.
Salmon face other difficulties, too — dams and global warming must be mentioned — but if you know anything about salmon, you know how resilient they are.
“We want people to be able to eat salmon,” says Ecotrust’s Johnson. Making sure we can continue to do so may seem as difficult as swimming upstream, but if the salmon can do it, so can we.