Salmon for Their Own Sake

Like everyone else, I’m given to enthusiasms. Like everyone else, my enthusiams are too many to list. Thinking about them, most seem to involve a narrative of some kind: the progress of favorite remembered plays in baseball or basketball–any sport, really–to movies and books to roads I’ve traveled and places I’ve visited and on good days to whatever I happen to encounter in the world.

(Maybe something else is at work here; our tendency or need to turn everything into a story. I just came across a poem, “In Praise of a Teacher,” by Nikki Giovanni. She says:

“I always loved English because
whatever human beings are, we are storytellers. It is our stories
that give a light to the future. When I went to college I became a
history major because history is such a wonderful story of who we
think we are; English is much more a story of who we really are.”)

One of my enthusiasms, strange to tell for one who has hardly ever hooked a fish, is for salmon. Specifically, the salmon of the Pacific coast. And going with the notion of story, I think the biggest part of my attraction is to the salmon’s life narrative: birth in cold inland waters, migration to the sea, a sojourn that can last several years in the hostile wilds of the ocean, and then a long homeward journey to find that birthplace stream, whatever the obstacles, spawn just once, and die.

salmonstream.jpgIt’s a great story, and my often half-informed fervor to share salmon history and lore for anyone who will sit still for a minute has led my colleagues at our Local Major Public Radio Station (LMPRS) to adopt a “safe word” when they think things are getting out of control. It’s “coho.” At the same time, I’ve probably gotten as much interest (or forebearance) as anyone could reasonably expect when suggesting salmon stories to develop for broadcast. Earlier this month, I got to attend a West Coast fisheries conference and do a few stories on prospects for the coming salmon season.

But that interest from my fellow journalists always comes with a question that I’ll summarize this way: “Salmon? Why should we care about salmon?” It’s a reasonable enough question: Every news story in every news venue contains some sort of explicit or implicit rationale or assumption about audience interest. Falling housing prices? Well, a lot of the audience is in that boat. E. coli in the food supply? We all eat that food. Rising taxes or reduced pensions? You see how it works.

In narrating the plight of California’s once-great native salmon populations, those who seek to save some semblance of the historic fisheries are learning to play that “why should anyone care?” game. In the past couple of years, they’ve brought consultants into play who can quantify what salmon mean economically. Cancelling two straight commercial salmon seasons, they reported, cost boat operators and fishing communities upward of $2 billion and 23,000 jobs.

I suppose the numbers are powerful, and it’s useful to have them when trying to persuade someone else that the decline of salmon is a story that matters. But the power of the statistics only goes so far: Someone else whose ox is being gored in the debate–for instance, the Central Valley farm interests who might not get all the water they want because some is being set aside for salmon–can come up with bigger, scarier numbers. And the numbers are unfortunate in another way: The pure economic impact is important, of course; whole societies have lived their lives around the salmon. But the cost a lost salmon season doesn’t begin to touch on the wonder of the animal and its place in the world or on what’s really lost when wild salmon runs go dead.

As it happens, my schoolteacher wife is teaching her fifth-graders about watersheds this year. Part of the lesson is about fish, and she’s been particularly interested in learning about efforts to restore one of Northern California’s last surviving wild coho runs, up in Marin County. One book in her watershed library is the one pictured above, “Salmon Stream.” The entire contents: a simple narration of the salmon’s life history. What’s wonderful about it is it presents the fish–the “resource”–as something of value for its own sake, without economic justification or cost-benefit analyses.

For me, the answer to why anyone ought to care about the salmon isn’t instantly accessible. The rational piece of the answer is what they represent about the world as it has been, as it is, as it might be, and the toll we’ve exacted from our surroundings to have our lives just so. The non-rational piece is the beauty of the thing itself, from conception to death. And maybe, when the question comes up next, I need to have copies of that picture book handy.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Current Affairs, History, Literature

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *