Salmon, Forests, and Protein Factories

IMG_0803It only took a day and a half.

That was all the rainfall required to turn the lethargic assembly of fish milling around at the mouth of the creek into a full-on salmon run. For nearly two weeks, I had watched a growing school of pink salmon slowly circulate where the dwindling fresh water from the creek met the sea. A few fishermen cast lines into the middle of the pattern but the fish weren’t much interested in eating anything. It was too late in their lifecycle for them to have any appetite.

Beneath the bridge two hundred yards upriver, only a handful of salmon had navigated their way up through the shallows.  I watched a pair of the bigger chum salmon hover over a slight depression in the streambed. At a moment that felt right to her, the female rolled onto her side and beat her tail rapidly against the gravel on the bottom in order to dig out a small depression in which to lay her eggs. The male quivered in anticipation but no eggs ever came.  With the water level so low, nobody seemed quite ready.

The rain that fell incessantly over thirty-six hours raised the water by six inches with more on the way. The Tongass forest became a giant wet sponge leaching enticing aromas from its peaty soils into the swelling river. Fish that had spent eighteen months or more out in the ocean could suddenly smell their way home. An ancient spark fired somewhere deep in their being. Destined to return to the same pools in which they had hatched, in a few weeks these salmon would release their own eggs into gravel redds before laying down in the shallows to die.

At about the same time the wild salmon were starting to head upstream, news broke that 4.5 tonnes of a genetically modified fish known as the AquaAdvantage salmon had been sold in Canadian stores. Genetically modified plants have been in the human food chain for about two decades but the AquaAdvantage salmon is the first genetically modified animal to reach consumer’s plates.  The salmon is produced by inserting a growth gene found in a Chinook salmon (a large Pacific species) into an Atlantic salmon, together with a gene promotor that resists cold water temperatures from an ocean pout. With this genetic cocktail driving the organism, the modified salmon grows considerably faster than other farm-raised Atlantics. Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have both declared that the salmon is as safe to eat as conventional salmon and that it contains a broadly similar nutritional profile.

Genetically modified foods create two types of reaction. One is a reaction concerning safety. This means the safety of the people who might eat them and also the safety of the environments into which they might be placed. FDA reviews of the AquaAdvantage salmon found that it satisfied both of these types of safety concerns. Human health, they concluded, was not an issue. The worry about salmon escaping from the rearing facility and interbreedingIMG_0849 with natural populations was met by the company promising a combination of carefully managed physical containment, the production of only sterile, female fish, and the locating of the salmon facility on land in Panama away from the ocean. If a fish should somehow escape to the sea, Caribbean ocean temperatures would be too high for them to survive and breed.

The other sort of concern comes in the form of a visceral reaction to the prospect of doing this sort of genetic manipulation to an animal at all. Isn’t there simply something wrong with crossing genes from three different species of fish to turn a natural organism into a synthetic product for an affluent consumer? Put bluntly, the AquaAdvantage salmon transforms a fish into an artificial protein factory. Are humans not ignoring some sort of line written into nature’s sands by meddling with the living world in this fashion?

Reasonable people can differ on this, but some argue that there is nothing morally problematic with approaching salmon this way. The industrial production of meat in most of its forms does much the same thing. It is also possible that using these kinds of techniques to produce protein more efficiently in some places will free up space that enables wild salmon to flourish elsewhere.

With these puzzles percolating, we need a new lens to think about the problem.

Back in the Tongass, the relationship between fish and forest looks tight. The salmon need the shade of the big trees for the water to stay cool enough for them. Fallen trunks create deeper pools in which the returning salmon can rest during their struggle upriver to spawn. Woody debris toppled into the river provides habitat for the insects on which the juvenile fish feed before they head out to sea. The next generation of salmon will depend on the filtering capacity of the tree roots to keep silty runoff from choking them in their eggs.

The trees in turn also need the salmon. The Tongass is a huge storehouse for carbon but it barely contains enough nitrogen to support the growth of its big trees. The salmon coming back from the ocean serve the forest as twenty-inch long marine nutrient packages. Tens of millions of them propel themselves up the rivers throughout the north-west coast, some of them swimming their valuable cargo hundreds of miles inland. When the fish die, scavengers grab their carcasses from the shallows and haul them into the forest to feed in peace. A single bear can bring seven hundred fish up to a quarter mile into the woods, eating only the tastiest morsels like brains, eggs, and stomachs. Eagles, mink, fishers, and swarms of insects also enjoy the seasonal addition to their diet. Even with all these hungry feeders, sometimes ninety percent of the carcass can be left uneaten on the forest floor. There the salmon  are slowly broken down allowing their nutrients to be taken up by the roots of Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and red cedar. In some places, more than seventy percent of the nitrogen in the forest comes from the fish. Cores taken from the older trees reveal bigger growth rings in years that correlate with abundant salmon runs.

When trying to decide the merits of an AquaAdvantage salmon versus a salmon caught of southeast Alaska, it is tempting to think that, when all is said and done, a fish is simply a fish. If it really is the case that there is no difference between the two salmon from a health standpoint, then why hold out for wild-caught fish?

Such a view, I would suggest, misses something big.

It deems inessential the long-established and potentially nourishing relationships that are integral to what we eat. In this case, these are relationships between salmon and bear, fish and forest, fisherman and livelihood. They are also the relationships between cultural identities and centuries of distinct, regional traditions and practices. For all kinds of food, complex ecological and sustaining cultural relationships are being served.

These relationships have value.  They ground us in the world and bring depth and connection to our lives. The loss of such relationships is a significant cost of radically new, industrial foods.

The Tongass salmon is the epicenter of a rich network of connections. Without trees, no fish.  Without fish, no trees.

Without meaningful relationships circulating around what we eat……..then what?

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