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I grew up in California in a salmon fishing port. My father was a commercial, salmon fisherman, and I remember as a child that on days when the salmon were running, salmon on the fish buyer’s dock were often piled as high as my head in make-shift, fish box corrals. Priced a little bit more than hamburger and a whole lot less than steak, king salmon were once the king of California’s seafood world. Over the course of decades, dwindling salmon stocks have raised the price of wild salmon beyond the price of filet mignon. And this year, there will be no wild salmon at all. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has shut the salmon season down, both for commercial and for sport. The reason? The DFW reports that only 60,000 salmon returned to their fish hatcheries last year after they predicted a return of 196,000 fish. Drought was cited as a cause, then came the ubiquitous climate change, followed by anybody’s guess. What happened to the rest of those fish?
Are wild salmon completely wild? No. It’s estimated that up to 90% of California’s ocean salmon begin their lives in hatcheries. California has 11 salmon hatcheries operated by the US Fish and Wildlife (2) and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. (9) There’s also a small, private hatchery on the Smith River thanks to the Kiwanis Club. By comparison, the state of Washington has 100 hatcheries operated by federal, state and tribal entities. Oregon has 33. California hatcheries were constructed to provide mitigation from hydroelectric dams that block salmon from reaching their historical spawning grounds. Most hatcheries in California were constructed in the 1950s and 60s. With the exceptions of the Trinity and Klamath hatcheries, juvenile salmon (smolts) use the Sacramento River to gain the sea. That’s if they make it to the ocean at all. Pollution, urban development, agricultural chemicals, irrigation pumps and predation in the Sacramento River and delta make for a dangerous trip. Tough luck little fish, but do we care at all?
Want some salmon to eat? Off to the big box store I used to go. “Eat more salmon,” they said. Omega-3 fats are good. At my box store the price of farmed salmon was good. Far less than wild salmon from the sea. However, cost is a relative thing when it comes to your money or your health, because I forgot to ask where did my salmon come from? It came from salmon farms: 60% from Norway, 40% from Chile, Atlantic, hybrid salmon raised fin-to-fin in floating pens, essentially fishnet jails, combination kitchens and toilets, where farmed salmon spend their brief, congested lives. Norwegian environmentalists warn that farmed salmon are essentially what they eat. They eat dried pellets derived from a slurry of things: vegetable products including corn and soy, sand eels, ruminant protein (lamb and beef organs and blood) plus “marine raw materials,” not intended for human consumption, that is: the head, skin and bones of fish carcasses. Add to that a pesticide that prevents the pellets from turning rancid, plus astaxanthin to dye the salmon red. Then there’s slice—emanectin benzoate—an insecticide used to control outbreaks of sea lice in salmon farms. Slice is listed as safe for humans. Supposedly, it can’t cross the blood-brain barrier. However, as revealed by Norwegian environmentalists again, employees at strictly guarded fish farms are often seen spraying something into salmon ponds while wearing chemical masks and protective gear. In an experiment that fed salmon pellets to rats, obese and diabetic was the result. Look at that farmed salmon on your sushi plate. See those wide, white lines? Omega-3 yes, but there’s also omega-6, the fat that increases weight. In wild salmon the lines are thin. Wild salmon, buffed athletes of the sea, eat pretty much what we would: shrimp, herring, squid; anything wild that swims. Farmed salmon are couch potato fish stuck with the fast food that they get. And…often, they get sick: ISA, infectious salmon anemia—pale gills, gulping air, sudden death, SAV—high mortality rates—and PRV, which turns a salmon’s heart to mush. It’s troubling to know that the viruses plaguing Norwegian fish farms are currently present in Canadian fish farms too. Some spawning salmon swimming through the effluence of these fish farms, are dying before they reach their breeding grounds. What happened to the missing California kings? Have infections from Canadian fish farms reached the sea off our California coast?
Can anything be done to put wild salmon back in our seas and healthy fish on our plates? Since most of our ocean salmon are hatched in hatcheries, a modest suggestion here. There are nine rivers north of the Golden Gate. Most are impacted by 150 years of logging that silted or blocked their historical, salmon spawning beds. Place hatcheries on these rivers where once salmon abundantly spawned. Yes, there are California environmentalists who oppose all hatchery fish. I hold sympathy with some of their points of view, especially with farm-raised fish. When every dam is gone, they dream of a time when salmon can return to their antediluvian spawning beds. It is a noble vision, but that would impact electricity and food production in this state. California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife and have mastered scientific, hatchery management techniques. All we need is more. High school kids could help maintain them to prepare them for environmental pursuits. We owe it to the health of our fish. We owe it to the health of ourselves.
Meanwhile, here we are in Northern California where salmon once spawned prolifically in all our rivers and streams. Ted Galletti, a Mendocino County supervisor of years and years ago told me story about when he was boy. When salmon spawned in the Navarro River, his father would send him with a horse-drawn wagon to the mouth of the river to retrieve spent salmon carcasses. He’d fill the wagon up and drive it back to their ranch to feed the pigs. He said he could have done it several times. In years gone by, wild salmon produced income for local fishing families as well as those who bought and processed the fish. Sports fishermen flocked to our ports bringing money to spend.
Meanwhile and today, up in our neck of the woods, a Democrat cabal has successfully proposed and financed a hiking trail from Marin County to Eureka along an old rail bed that was formally partially owned by a former congressman. Wonderful news for people who live someplace else—hikers, backpackers, trail bike riders, who will bring scant economic gain to where we live. They import their food on their backs, and sleep on the ground, not in Inns or B&Bs. Additionally, the so-called Great Redwood Trail will not be so great for elderly folks who dislike hiking in sweltering heat or breathing smoke from our summer fires. Who came up with this crazy idea? Were we allowed to vote for this? Who will it benefit? The eco-virtue of politicians? Elite environmentalists, who inhabit commissions and boards by supporting the politicians who placed them there? What’s in it for you and me, and what’s in it for salmon that have disappeared from our rivers and streams? 500 hundred million bucks. That’s what’s proposed for the Great Rip-off Trail. Could that money be used for something else? Something for the re-creation jobs to sustain fishing families, and bring salmon fishing for sport back to our coastal ports? Can anyone venture a guess? How about wild salmon back in the sea?
Author The Fisherman’s Son, Random House
A 50-year resident of Elk