Salmon: The Third Option
Salmon are anadromous fish that once thrived in the rivers of New England. I remember learning this ecological fact years ago while reading William Cronon’s Changes in the Land (1983) and thinking, “oops, that must be a mistake.” Not so. Not only did I soon learn that Cronon was right about the salmon but that American colonists were, even in a pre-industrial wilderness, perfectly adept at driving species to near, if not complete, extinction. Fish populations, as the historian Daniel Vickers has shown, were especially vulnerable to what we would now deem primitive methods of capture. See his under-appreciated article “Those Dammed Shad,” published in 2004. It’s must reading for anyone who thinks ecological destruction is unique to advanced industrial cultures.
Salmon have been in the news a lot over the past couple of weeks and, if my reading of the situation is accurate, humans haven’t made much progress in deciding how best to interact with this increasingly popular fish. The most notable news is that genetically modified farm-raised salmon will soon be coming to a grocery near you courtesy of the FDA. As Bruce Friedrich argued recently, and Gene Baur has reiterated, the mechanism of approval (basically treating genetic modification as a “drug”) is bizarre. Personally (and, I’m sure, unpopularity), I’m one of those people who’s bones don’t rattle at the mention of “genetic modification” (for reasons I will not go into now). Nonetheless, you will be happy to know, my feeling about the genetically modified salmon is that it’s a terrible idea. It’s a terrible idea for the simple reason that all animal breeding programs are a terrible idea: they’re ultimately about making it easier to exploit animals with industrial efficiency. Advocates of GM salmon will say it’s about improving feed conversion. That improvement isn’t irrelevant, but the fact is that nobody in the farmed salmon industry would give a hoot about feed conversion if it did’t allow the cheaper and more streamlined production of salmon.
Well, many consumers will tell themselves, at least there’s the option of eating seasonally caught wild salmon. This has long been the virtuous, if pricier, choice among environmentally conscious consumers who find the concept of farmed salmon to be unnatural. The idea that the average consumer could make a reasonable estimation of salmon populations is, of course, ridiculous. Therefore, we rely on certifying agencies to tell us what we want to hear. In the case of salmon, an animal that most consumers wrongly believe aren’t sentient, we rely on objective third parties tell us that certain salmon is ecologically a-okay. What we fail to remember about certifying agencies is that they stay in business by telling us when we can eat a product. If they said “sorry, you can never eat salmon,” they’d go out of business. Key point, that.
This conflict leads to deception, as we learned from an NPR report earlier this week. Turns out the label “Certified Sustainable Seafood MSC”—previously one of the most trusted labels—is up to dirty tricks. Belying it mission to promote fishing methods that ”don’t deplete supply, and help protect the environment in the waters where it was caught,” Certified Sustainable Seafood has approved fisheries under a wide variety of conditions that they promise to meet in the future. As one critic explained, it’s sort of like giving a poorly behaved child a lollipop for promising to behave well later on. It should be no surprise as to what this kind of result this kind of “vigilance” creates. To cite one example, the CSS gave a green light to catch Fraser River sockeye salmon when, it turns out, there are none to catch. Stocks had been depleted.
The scenarios sketched out here lead too many consumers to throw up their hands in frustration, leaving them to feel as if they’re damned no matter what they choose. What the media who covers these issued fails to highlight, however, is that there’s a third option, one that defies the power of industrial agriculture while preserving aquatic ecosystems and the salmon populations thereon. You can do something that popular consumer culture repeatedly fails to consider. You can, I swear by it, just say no.