Think About It: Fish story

Wild Pacific salmon and I have a history. My dad was a commercial fisherman who fished the waters of Alaska, usually for salmon and halibut, as a member of the crew.

His life nearly ended tragically in September 1946, when the newly launched “unsinkable” fishing boat, the Atomic, carrying 4 tons of tuna, was overwhelmed by the sea and tides and sunk, taking one of the seven crewmen with it.

There is a reason that commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations. I never knew why my dad never learned to swim.

Later, when he was older, he took his own boat alone to gillnet the waters off La Push. Early in my life, he was gone up to six months a year and later, three or four months when fishing seasons were shortened to maintain the supply of fish.

It’s not an accident that I grew up eating wild Pacific salmon and halibut, usually fresh, and then from the freezer during the winter. Preparation was simple, grilled or baked, and always exactly right. Smoked salmon was common fare, but not my favorite. We never had tuna.

Where’s my fish?

Sockeye, silver and king salmon are seasonally available but at certain times of year, the only plentiful salmon for purchase is farm-raised Atlantic salmon. I wanted it to be the same as my wild Pacific Salmon; alas, it is simply not the same fish.

Farm-raised Atlantic salmon smells different, tastes different and doesn’t seem to have the same consistent quality of taste as wild Pacific salmon. Remember, of course, that is the opinion of an elitist salmon-eating daughter of a commercial fisherman. People who grew up eating Atlantic salmon likely have a very different opinion.

Husband and I were about to give up eating salmon when I had a chance encounter with a commercial fisherman, who must have felt sorry for me and offered some pieces of wild Pacific salmon from his freezer and the name of a supplier, from whom we could purchase fresh frozen pieces.

Ah, home again; we cherished every bit of simple baked salmon. The experience led me on a search to better understand the declining supply of wild and rising supply of farm-raised salmon. That search lead me to a public meeting at which I met a man who was about to lose his job.

I started my search by adopting the commercial fisherman as one of my e-experts (environmental experts). He pointed to the decision to dam great rivers to provide hydroelectric power as the beginning the decline. Dams cut off the river access for salmon to return to spawning grounds. Efforts were and are made to install fish ladders but, apparently, they are either not sufficient or not the same for wild salmon.

Wild Pacific salmon, farm-raised Atlantic salmon can’t be friends

Pause for a moment and think about the determined spirit of a Pacific salmon who finds its way from spawning grounds to the Pacific Ocean only to be driven by instinct to return later to the same spawning grounds. The returning wild salmon fights its way against the current, leaping out of the water in defiance of gravity and the need for its life sustaining water environment. All the while, the salmon turns brilliant colors as if to announce a triumphant journey to its death.

This romantic, tragic tale explains why wild Pacific salmon can’t be farmed. They will not be corralled and possess the spirit and know-how to leap out of the pen.

My e-expert told me that all Atlantic Salmon are farm-raised. I had no idea. I understand that Norwegian companies are farming on the west coast of Canada. Other Europeans are also quite good at farming fish.

Farming fish is not new worldwide. The concerns of environmentalists are not new either. They and knowledgeable fisher people have been and are sending out alarms about the dangers of farming fish to wild salmon and the surrounding waters befouled by captive fish.

The alarms escalated when an Atlantic salmon fish farm off Cypress Island (in Rosario Straits/Salish Sea) owned by Cooke Aquaculture unintentionally released about 160,000 Atlantic Salmon last summer into the sea to frolic and worse, further reduce the limited food supply.

You might say that Cooke’s and Washington state industrial fish pens’ gooses were cooked by the release, reportedly caused by weakened net pens laden with mussels and other sea life.

The Cooke farm, located near Port Angeles, lost its lease for violations in December, despite a plan to establish a new improved farm near Sequim. The state Legislature took up the fate of fish farm pens as an issue.

Market justice works against employees

My curiosity brought me to a public meeting with Sen. Kevin Van de Wege and Rep. Mike Chapman to discuss pending fish pen legislation. Most people who spoke cited Cooke’s neglect, the dangers to wild salmon and the environment.

I don’t have much sympathy for Cooke who reportedly delayed repairs to harvest or because they planned to move locations. And, I can’t muster up a lot of sympathy for Atlantic salmon, but I do feel sympathy for those who are losing their lifelong work due to, what I think, was a company’s failure to effectively manage the business. The release of those fish triggered a series of official actions that jeopardized Cooke’s very existence and all related jobs in our area.

I happened to sit next to a man who spoke toward the end of the public meeting. He identified himself as the net pen manager of the PA Cooke facility. He went on to say he was so employed for the past 32 years. He cited statistics related to the fish produced at his farm and claimed that they were aware of the problem and working on a fix before the state terminated its lease.

I spoke with him afterwards and started by saying the obvious – that he was alone in this roomful of people. He said he wasn’t and pointed to another person across the room. He told me he raised three daughters here, all of whom graduated from college. He was proud and clearly felt part of the community.

He didn’t say, but I sensed the betrayal he felt, not just in this room where he heard many claiming he did a poor job, but by his community.

He pointed out that people are eating farm-raised Atlantic salmon, enough to support a large industry responding to market demand. He said millions of metric tons are imported into the USA — 15 million metric tons of those come from our state, or did. Another state or country will pick up the market.

One person at the meeting spoke to the need for more research which I have come to believe is necessary despite my salmon bias. Is there something to be learned or do we just give up on salmon of any kind? Some dams may be coming down, but I doubt we are going to give up hydroelectricity to restore wild salmon.

The Washington state Legislature passed, and the governor is expected to sign the bill that will “phase out industrial ocean fish farms in state waters. House Bill 2957 bans new leases to non-native net pen operations and prohibits the renewal of existing leases.” The bills include a provision for research.

The wait will be long for those now jobless experienced fish pen workers.

Bertha Cooper spent her career years as a health care organization and program administrator and consultant and is a featured columnist in Sequim Gazette. Cooper has lived in Sequim with her husband for nearly 20 years.

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