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Cape Ann Fresh Catch

Allowing Pacific Wild Salmon to Define Sustainability

Posted by Colles Stowell on

Spawning sockeye salmon. The name 'sockeye' is thought to have come from  the tribal word 'sukkai', for red fish.

NOAA photo

I write this blog primarily to spread the word about sustainable seafood. “Sustainable” has become a bit of a cliché as marketers stretch and pull the definition in directions that weren’t part of its original meaning. Unfortunately, that leaves many of us with more questions than answers about where our seafood comes from.

I write this blog to bring some clarity and understanding about our relationship to seafood and the many variables that actually determine whether it is sustainable. I’m not here to tell people what fish to buy at a market or restaurant. I’m here to provide information so they can make their own decisions.

Ultimately, it’s a value judgment.

So it was refreshing to see the very essence of what sustainable seafood means in the compelling film, The Breach, which played in Boston Sunday as part of its East Coast tour. I had the honor of participating on a Q&A panel with a local chef, a local seafood purveyor, a commercial fisherman from Bristol Bay and a tribal leader who provided a first-hand perspective of his people’s dependence on the salmon.

Director Mark Titus admitted before the show that this was a love story, filmed over four years, mirroring the evolution of his relationship to Pacific salmon that he caught as a kid against the sad story of how we have mismanaged wild salmon in the past.

The film chronicles the Atlantic salmon’s downward spiral precipitated by the fateful river dams that obstructed spawning journeys and hastened by unregulated fishing driven by consumer demand. Runs that were once beyond count throughout Northern Europe and North America became barren to the point where full recovery to support the same commercial fisheries is unlikely.

Similar dams blocked spawning grounds for wild Pacific salmon in northern California, Oregon and Washington. The Breach shows how locals, fishermen and environmentalists have banded together to change the tide, forcing politicians and other regulators to blow up some of these dams, such as two on the Elwha River in Washington.

Nature’s response is almost immediate, with returning salmon searching for good places to lay eggs.

The Tongass National Forest also plays an important role in the film, as it houses very critical spawning habitat among its nearly 17 million acres of majestic old growth forest along Alaska’s southeast corner. The film beautifully illustrates the intrinsic relationship between the salmon and the redwoods and cedars. When they die, the salmon deposit nitrogen and other nutrients the trees use to grow and stay healthy. The tree roots help support the gravelly beds the salmon need to spawn. Without those roots, heavy rains and snowmelt would bring tons of silt downstream, covering the gravel and making the streams unsuitable for spawning.

Historic and planned clearcutting of the Tongass threaten that relationship.

The film’s final spotlight shines on the proposed Pebble Mine. Located in the Bristol Bay watershed, one of the world’s largest open pit copper mines would sit squarely in the heart of the world’s largest, most prolific wild salmon run. A mining operation the size of Manhattan with a dam holding back toxic waste that would be 700 feet deep and cover several square miles is a terrifying thought.

If that dam breaks, the Bristol Bay watershed would be inundated with toxic materials like sulfur, cyanide, diesel, gas, oil, and a cocktail of nasty stuff that would forever alter the ecosystem the salmon depend on. Not to mention several billion tons of silt and acidic runoff that would overrun the natural streambeds.

But if the dam is engineered correctly, it will hold, right?

The key words are “in perpetuity.” The dam has to hold forever according to current EPA standards.

The global track record is abysmal. Since January of 2000, more than 27 major tailings (mine waste) dams have failed at an average rate of one in every eight months, with varying degrees of environmental destruction, according to the Center for Science and Public Participation. Two such dams failed within three days of each other last August. The Imperial Metals Mount Polley dam dumped billions of gallons of toxic water and sand into British Columbia’s Fraser River system, which is valuable spawning habitat for several species of Pacific salmon.

The Pebble Mine project is currently held up in litigation as the mine’s owners are suing EPA after the federal agency threatened to preemptively shut down or limit the mine’s operation based on probable violations of the Clean Water Act. And there are bills in Congressional subcommittees aimed at hamstringing EPA’s authority to limit the mine’s operations.

With the film, director Titus makes the point that growing public outcry and political pressure regarding Pebble, Tongass clearcutting, and other threats to wild populations are important to fulfilling the implicit pact we have with wild salmon. If we get out of the way and let them complete their instinctive lifecycles, they can sustain us.

That is the definition of sustainable seafood.

If you get a chance, you should see the film. It’s a picturesque, thoughtful narrative. Here is a link to see it online, and here is a link to upcoming showings across the country.

If you’d like to get involved, check out these links:

U.S. Senators: Find your senators’ contact info here.

U.S. Representatives: Find your representatives’ contact info here.

Alaska Conservation Foundation

Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association

Trout Unlimited: Save Bristol Bay

  • Sustainable
  • wild sockeye
  • The Breach film
  • Pebble Mine
  • Tongass National Forest
  • Elwha River
  • Mount Polley Dam
  • wild salmon
  • wild Pacific salmon

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