The trouble with salmon

By: Taras Grescoe; Photographs: Rob Howard; Illustration: Heather Jones
Published: May 2009 Best Life, May 2009

Ironically, the healthiest choice on the menu may, in the long run, be the most serious danger to your health and to the planet. Here is the unbelievable truth about salmon.

TRAGEDY AT SEA Norwegian fish farms first wiped out Europe's wild salmon. Now they are destroying the stocks in British well as the livelihoods of local fishermen such as Mike Mullin (at top). Mike Mullin cuts the twin outboards of his 20-foot-long Boston Whaler, and suddenly we're alone on the water, silently drifting past islets tufted with moss-draped shorefront pine in arrangements so exquisite it's as if bonsai masters have been pruning their convoluted limbs for generations. On Canada's west coast, where cougars and bears show up regularly in suburban yards, you expect to do some wildlife watching, but here in Clayoquot Sound, you can't shake the feeling that it's the wildlife that's watching you. Since leaving the dock at the town of Tofino, British Columbia, we've already been buzzed by porpoises picking their way through submerged kelp forests, and stopped counting the slick round heads of harbor seals that pop up from the waves to track our progress. Now, as we bob at the head of Shelter Inlet, a loon shoots us a cockeyed glance before diving, and a bald eagle swivels its head from atop a flat-topped spruce. In the spring, says Mullin, the families of humpbacks, orcas, and grays become so thick in the water that it feels like "whale soup."

It's easy to see why, after a youth spent roaming the globe from Lebanon to Chile, the New York-born Mullin chose to settle down in this temperate rain forest. With its millennial cedars coming down to the water's edge, the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island gives you an idea of what the continent must have looked like before industry clear-cut the forests, dammed the rivers, and developed just about every spare acre of shorefront. Clayoquot Sound, more than 1,400 square miles of wilderness that was named a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Biosphere Reserve in 2000, is simply stunning.

But pristine it's not. Half a mile from the mouth of the Megin River--which until the early 1990s still saw thousands of sockeye and tens of thousands of chum salmon returning to its headwaters-- we round a point to find ourselves within a stone's throw of what is, in essence, a floating factory farm. A rectangular platform is anchored a couple of hundred yards from the shore. Surrounded by a metal catwalk buoyed by plastic floats, it is the size of 16 full-size tennis courts. Crows and seagulls perch on the railings, and yellow signs warn trespassers away with firmly worded NO DOCKING signs. Moored alongside the catwalk, a transport boat that doubles as crews' quarters bristles with dishes for pulling in satellite-TV signals. The metallic blare of announcements from a loudspeaker echoes around the inlet, and a constant stream of brown feed pellets sprays from rotating nozzles, provoking the occasional flash of silver at the water's surface. Burly crew members in orange safety vests scoop dead fish out of the water. Hidden from view, a dozen net cages in two rows of six drop 100 feet below; they are filled with hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon, so densely packed that each of these nomadic predators is left with less than a bathtub full of water to itself.

SALMON INC. Below the surface, open-net salmon pens pollute the pristine waters of Clayoquot Sound, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The farmed salmon are fed neurotoxins and are high in inflammatory omega-6s, the consumption of which can lead to heart disease. "I bring tourists from around the world out here all the time," says Mullin, as he shakes his head. "They're all shocked to see these salmon farms. They think that because this is a biosphere reserve it is protected from industrial activity, but it isn't." Mullin tells me that when the sun sets, the salmon farmers switch on powerful underwater floodlights. The lights attract herring and juvenile wild Pacific salmon, providing a free meal for the captive Atlantic salmon, and Clayoquot Sound blazes with the kind of artificial sodium glare usually associated with a Wal-Mart parking lot.
As we head back to Tofino, the extent of the industry's penetration becomes evident. The geography of the west coast of Vancouver Island can be conjured up by flattening a hand on a table: The splayed fingers represent the wooded headlands that jut into the Pacific; the grooves between them, which narrow into salmon-bearing rivers, are inlets, analogous to the fjords of ocean-fronting European countries. Every time we head up an inlet, we find at least one complex of net cages tucked away behind islets and points of land. All told, there are 20 such sites in Clayoquot Sound, holding up to a million Atlantic salmon each.

A False Panacea
If you recently ordered a piece of salmon sashimi, papered a bagel with a slice of lox, or tossed a teriyaki-marinated salmon steak onto the grill, your meal almost certainly came not from a fisherman's hook or net, but from a floating feedlot located on the west coast of Canada or Chile, and owned by one of three vertically integrated Norwegian multinationals. Ninety percent of the fresh salmon eaten in the United States now comes from a farm, and most of it is raised at densities that would make a coop full of battery hens seem palatial. Industrial-scale fish farming, promoted as a panacea to world hunger and the salvation of the wild fisheries, is turning out to suffer from the sins besetting the most notorious confined animal feeding operations on land: overcrowding, disease, contamination from pollutants, and overmedication with pesticides and antibiotics.

Back at the dock in Tofino, Mullin sheds his orange survival suit. Charismatic, energetic, and sporting a full white beard and an alabaster necklace shaped like a whale's caudal fin, Mullin seems much younger than his 65 years. "The salmon farms started arriving in the early 1980s," he recalls. "I welcomed them at first. I even helped install some of the catwalks!" After struggling to earn a living trolling for salmon as a commercial fisherman for 15 years, he hoped the farms would bring much-needed jobs to the local economy.

"A friend of mine started working on spreadsheets that projected the feed input volumes the farms would need to fatten the salmon," says Mullin. Even today's most efficient farms require at least four pounds of wild-caught fish (dispensed in feed pellets) to produce a single pound of salmon. (While wild salmon can be voracious consumers of small fish, for the majority of their lives they are what's known as planktivores, getting 85 percent of their food from small drifting plant and animal life.) "The first time I saw the figures, I said to myself, Holy f--k! This is out of control! Then the trucks started arriving, bringing tons and tons of feed." The uneaten food pellets fall through the net cages and mix with salmon feces, eventually eliminating all but the most primitive fauna on the seafloor.

Mullin soon started to hear disturbing reports. Within a half-mile radius of the salmon farms, one fisherman told him, all the prawns seemed to have disappeared; the empty traps now came up dripping with stinking yellow muck. Markets in Vancouver started refusing rockfish caught near the salmon farms because they were covered in strange growths and ugly lesions. At the same time, the returns of sockeye, chinook, and chum in rivers near the salmon farms had gone into a precipitous decline.

In 2007, a Canadian owned salmon-farming company on the coast announced that it had a problem. Confining millions of salmon in the wild attracts eagles, killer whales, and other predators; farmers are given permits to shoot seals and sea lions if they become a nuisance. In April 2007, it was reported that 51 California sea lions became trapped between the layers of netting at this large salmon farm and drowned.

"Normally, feed bags filled with rocks are tied to the corpses of the sea lions to sink them to the bottom of the sound," says Mullin. "But during a recent episode, they kept floating back up. I know the kid who works the crane at the salmon farm, and he said lifting those totes full of disintegrating sea lion carcasses was one of the most disgusting things he has ever had to do."

As shocking as reports of deformed rockfish and graveyards of marine mammals can be, they may, in the long run, be the least of the salmon farms' impacts. Increasing evidence shows that, far from enhancing global food security, salmon farming is hastening the collapse of the world's fisheries, starting with the Pacific Northwest's remaining populations of wild salmon. In other words, by opting for farmed salmon today, we could be guaranteeing ourselves a future in which wild fish will forever be off the menu.

TROUBLES IN PARASITES For a baby salmon (above), being infected with a single sea louse is the equivalent to having an adult raccoon attached to your abdomen (a close-up is pictured here). At the Brink
Once nicknamed "Tough City," a hardscrabble fishing village with an active fleet of salmon trollers, Tofino was colonized in the 1970s by hippies in wet suits who made the pilgrimage to the edge of the continent to surf the frigid, scrotum-tightening breakers at nearby Long Beach. In the early 1990s, it became the launching point for massive protests against such forestry giants as MacMillan Bloedel, which had started logging the last patches of old-growth rain forest left on Vancouver Island. In the wake of some of the most histrionic tree hugging in history (856 people were eventually arrested), logging of the most sensitive stands was called off, and nine years ago, UNESCO, in consultation with local First Nations groups, named Clayoquot Sound a biosphere reserve. Since then, it has become a global poster child for balancing conservation with sustainable economic, social, and cultural development.

Clayoquot's "reserve" status has not completely halted resource extraction. Logging still goes on--some hillsides are so thoroughly shorn that they resemble the flank of a dog with a case of the mange--and mining giant Selkirk Metals has plans to take the top off Catface Mountain, directly across the water from Tofino, to start an open-pit copper mine.

This is strange, because Tofino owes its current prosperity to its proximity to more than 3.5 million acres of ostensibly protected rain forest and shoreline. While paisley-painted Westfalia vans still putter past the hemp beachwear store, and flip-flop-wearing hipsters pedal mountain bikes to Long Beach with surfboards tucked under their arms, much of Tofino's economy now depends on a different class of visitors. At the spectacular Wickaninnish Inn, well-heeled Europeans pay $600 a night to watch winter storms lash their Pacific-facing suites. The old fish plant is being turned into The Shore, a development of million-dollar condos. Local businesses advertise "west coast aquatic safaris," and visitors embark in Zodiacs on spine-thumping excursions to spy on humpbacks and orcas; the whale-watching industry alone brings in $5 million a year. And the local economy depends on sportfishermen; in British Columbia, the marine sports fishery employs 3,900 people, contributing $183 million to the province's economy annually. (In contrast, salmon farms employ just 1,500 and bring in $134 million.) The SUVs in my motel's parking lot are from Idaho, California, and Washington State, and the bars are full of pink-necked good ol' boys who have come north to land their quota of trophy chinook and coho.

Behind the scenes, however, Pacific-salmon populations are in free fall. In 2008, the commercial chinook season in California and Oregon was canceled for the first time in 160 years. Until the 19th century, 100 million sockeye a year could be expected to return to the Fraser River south of Vancouver; this year, returns were so low that even the aboriginal food fishery, which allows natives a few thousand fish for ceremonial and social purposes, had to be restricted. In British Columbia alone, 142 distinct salmon populations have gone extinct, and estimates put salmon returns to the rivers of the Pacific Northwest down to just 6 or 7 percent of their historic levels. At this rate, Pacific salmon could soon join their Atlantic cousins: From Maine to Norway, wild salmon are now considered commercially extinct. If you buy Atlantic salmon these days, it most likely came from a farm, usually one in the Pacific Ocean.

LIKE SHOOTING FISH IN A BARREL If widely adopted, closed-containment salmon farming (right) could save wild salmon stocks and keep local fishermen such as Mike Smith (left) in business.
What happened to the mighty salmon runs of the West Coast? Spawning salmon need gravel streambeds and cold, fast-running water to lay their eggs. The first blow came with the California gold rush of the 1850s, as hydraulic mining choked spawning streams with sediment. In 1912, dynamiting for the Canadian Northern Railway line dumped tons of boulders into Hell's Gate at Fraser Canyon. The following summer, when 50 million sockeye were swimming upstream, many of them were unable to fit through the passage, causing famine among the natives of British Columbia's interior. More recently, giant pumps have been diverting water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to towns and farms in California's Central Valley, degrading the river habitat and even sucking up young fish before they reach the sea. Meanwhile, dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers have prevented egg-bearing fish from reaching streambeds inland. Government hatcheries, far from restoring dwindling runs, too often produce sterile fish that end up monopolizing food in rivers and digging up the egg-laying sites of wild stocks. And the higher water temperatures brought on by global warming prevent the eggs of spawning fish from maturing; some streams get so warm that gravid females refuse to swim upstream. It's not surprising then that the only consistently healthy salmon runs left are those in the cold rivers of Alaska. There is evidence, though, that Canadian farmed salmon are spreading north: Since 1990, Alaskan fishermen have reported finding nearly 600 escaped Atlantic salmon in their nets.

The End Of Heart-Healthy Salmon
Early on, some observers hoped that farming salmon, rather than catching them, would take the pressure off wild fish. Raising a carnivorous species in the wild can have unforeseen consequences. The first Norwegian salmon farms became infested with a nasty parasite called Gyrodactylus salaris, which feeds by attaching its mouth to its host and secreting a digestive enzyme that dissolves scales and skin. The parasite soon spread to wild salmon; finally, the government decided to flood 24 rivers with the pesticide rotenone, ridding them of all animal life. Public outrage led Norwegian farmers to look for new coasts to colonize. Americans were wary: Only a handful of salmon farms have ever been licensed in Maine and Washington, but, starting in the 1980s, a business-friendly provincial government in British Columbia handed out scores of permits. Today, there are 149 salmon farms in the province, and all but 19 are owned by the Scandinavian multinationals that dominate the industry.

The salmon farmers also turned to Chile, a country that has a long, temperate-water coastline, lax environmental regulations, and cheap labor. Chile is now one of the leading producers in the $2 billion global farmed-salmon industry. In 2007, overcrowding in Chilean salmon farms led to an outbreak of infectious salmon anemia, a disease that killed millions of fish and left the flesh of survivors riddled with lesions. Perhaps more disturbingly, smolts in South America are raised in freshwater lakes rather than in hatcheries, and native species pass parasites to the juvenile salmon before they are taken to the net cages; several cases of intestinal parasites in humans were recently traced back to raw farmed salmon. In other words, you can pick up a tapeworm by eating gravlax, seviche, or sushi made with Chilean farmed salmon.

Salmon farms also attract sea lice, shape-changing crustaceans that feed on the scales and skin of wild fish. In the Broughton Archipelago, a jigsaw of islands off British Columbia's central coast, wild pink salmon are infested with the thumbtack-size copepods, which trail long white strands of eggs. (One researcher told me that, in terms of scale, a sea louse on a salmon smolt is the equivalent of a full-grown raccoon clutching an adult human's abdomen.) A single louse can kill a juvenile fish, and some are covered with dozens of lice. Scientists believe that offshore net cages have become virtual ranches for these naturally occurring parasites, and the tens of millions of salmon in Broughton's 27 farms are passing the sea lice to wild fish. They say this infestation could drive Broughton's pink salmon, the foundation of the local ecosystem, to extinction by 2011. Analyzing data from Ireland, Scotland, and Atlantic Canada, a team from Dalhousie University, in Halifax, showed that disease and parasites spread by farmed salmon reduced survival of local populations of wild salmon and sea trout by more than 50 percent per generation.

The salmon-farming industry claims that sea lice are not a problem in Clayoquot Sound, but Mark Spoljaric, who has conducted sample plankton tows near salmon farms for the environmental group Friends of Clayoquot, tells me that his findings "suggest that the sea-lice levels are magnitudes higher around a couple of Norwegian-owned salmon farms." According to Alexandra Morton, a marine biologist who has published scientific papers documenting sea-lice infestations, "There were more larval free-swimming sea lice in the sample taken near the fish farm in Clayoquot than I have ever collected in a single plankton tow in the Broughton Archipelago."

To rid salmon of the lice, Canadian fish farmers spike their feed with a marine toxin called Slice, or emamectin benzoate. The United States Food and Drug Administration, already hard-pressed to inspect imported Asian seafood for antibiotic and fungicide residues, does not regularly test imported salmon for emamectin benzoate. Canada supplies the United States with 38 percent of its farmed salmon, which means the fillets in nearly every American supermarket may be contaminated with this pesticide. Emamectin benzoate is also used to rid sick trees of pine beetles; when administered to rats and dogs, it causes tremors, spinal deterioration, and muscle atrophy. So while you may be loading up on salmon to reap the brain-boosting benefits of omega-3s, you may also be ingesting a known neurotoxin that the EPA has listed as highly toxic.
<> Though wild and farmed salmon have similar levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, feed makers are increasingly bulking up the pellets with soy, which increases the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids. A disproportion of omega-6 fatty acids promotes chronic inflammation, which has been associated with everything from heart disease and cancer to Alzheimer's and depression. Similarly, last summer researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine published a report in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association warning about the dangers of eating farmed tilapia for people at risk for heart disease. That farmed fish's diet is also spiked with unhealthy amounts of soy, thanks to America's farm subsidies. Farmed salmon has other problems too. Levels of vitamin D, which is essential for preventing colorectal cancer, are four times lower in farmed salmon than in wild. In fact, the supervision of the entire fish-feed business is lax at best, and feed makers bulk up pellets with melamine, poultry litter, and even hydrolyzed chicken feathers. Analyzing two tons of salmon bought in stores from Edinburgh, Scotland, to Seattle, Washington, a team led by Ronald Hites, PhD, of Indiana University, found that the farmed product contained up to 10 times more persistent organic pollutants (POPs) than the wild variety. The chemicals in question are among the most toxic known to man, such as the dioxins from herbicides (the most infamous being Agent Orange) and the polychlorinated biphenyls used in paints and pesticides, among other things. All are suspected carcinogens; most cause behavioral, growth, and learning disorders. Because of the POPs concentrated in the salmon's flesh, Hites and his team concluded that "the majority of farm-raised salmon should be consumed at one meal or less per month." In the case of Scottish salmon, they advise those who wish to avoid cancer to have no more than three farmed-salmon meals a year.

Were it not for artificial colorants, the flesh of farmed salmon would be an unappetizing gray, yellow, or khaki. In the wild, salmon owe their pink hue to krill and shrimp, which contain organic pigments called astaxanthin and canthaxanthin. At salmon farms, artificial versions can be added directly to the feed. Pharmaceutical giant Hoffman-La Roche makes a convenient color chart, like the paper strips used to select paint colors in hardware stores, called the SalmoFan. It allows farmers to choose shades of flesh between pale salmon pink (#20) and bright orange-red (#34). In 2003, Washington State consumers won a lawsuit that forced Safeway and two other supermarket chains to put "color added" labels on the packaging of farmed salmon.

The choice then seems easy enough: Buy wild Alaskan instead of farmed salmon. The problem, of course, is that Alaskan salmon is hard to find, and with Copper River chinook retailing for a record $45 a pound in 2008, lately only the lucky few can afford to treat the wild fish as a staple. But it's more than just a matter of price. In a cross-country sting operation, Consumer Reports found that 56 percent of salmon labeled "wild" in supermarkets was actually farmed. All of which is not to discredit fish farming as a venerable industry. The Chinese, for example, have been sustainably raising carp on table scraps for 5,000 years. With 45 percent of the seafood in the global diet now coming from farms, aquaculture has become an essential source of nutrition. It's just that there are better ways of doing it than raising a carnivorous species in permeable nets off vulnerable coastlines.

A Simple Solution
Swift Aquaculture is a small salmon farm located among the dairy farms and orchards of Agassiz on the British Columbia mainland. Bruce Swift, the owner, shows me into a high-roofed barn and invites me to toss handfuls of feed pellets into a 12-foot tank. The surface boils as dozens of silver-sided fish snap up their lunch. Swift explains that they are coho, the prized game fish of the Pacific coast; from the larval stage, he has raised them to about two pounds. Soon he'll send them to some of Vancouver's leading restaurants. With a slight production increase, Swift figures he can soon sell his pan-size coho at Whole Foods.

"I've been raising coho here since 2004," says Swift. "My wife, Marylou, and I bought this old dairy farm and fitted it out with tanks. I'm a geneticist, so I'm really interested in the different stocks of fish, and Marylou is a nutritionist, and she has worked hard to create an organic, sustainable feed for the fish. The oil comes from a certified sustainable herring fishery, and the fish meal comes from scrap pieces of yellowfin tuna that would have been thrown out otherwise."

Swift's farm is fully integrated: He collects the waste from the salmon and uses it to fertilize his fields of wasabi, watercress, and garlic; the produce is snapped up by restaurants in Vancouver. As a sideline, he raises crayfish, which eat excess algae and watercress and can be sold for a pretty penny to Scandinavian bistros to make bisques. As we speak, we are surrounded by mountains (Agassiz is a farming community 65 miles from the Pacific Ocean) and there's not a body of water in sight. Swift runs his entire operation on well water and will be using a reuse and recirculation system later this year. Thousands of coho swim in Swift's tanks. All this on less than two acres of land.

I'm looking at a closed-containment system, a form of aquaculture that can't possibly contaminate wild stocks or pollute the seabed, because it's on land. Such systems are already being used to raise turbot in France, shrimp in the Mexican desert, and bluefin tuna in Australia. Salmon farmers claim closed-containment systems would make farming salmon too expensive, but Swift and his wife are making a healthy living at it. Their whole fish sell for just a dollar more a pound than those raised in ocean net cages.

After the tour, Swift invites me into his kitchen and grates some wasabi rhizome; it is fresh and peppery, and has nothing to do with the sneeze-inducing wasabi paste that comes with cheap sushi.

It also complements the main course beautifully: thin slices of delicious, firm-fleshed, wood-smoked coho, cut from a fish Swift raised in his own backyard.

A Fool's Bargain
Making a right turn at the end of Highway 4 will get you to Tofino, but if you turn left, you'll end up in Ucluelet--known to locals as Ukee--a town that is Tofino's down-to-earth, working-class little brother. For a long time, Ucluelet was a crucial node in the coastal salmon fishery, but now its packing plants sit deserted and the old fuel docks are starting to cave in. Only three or four trollers--those elegant workhorses of the coast that fish with a cat's cradle of hook-and-line, rather than trawling with enormous nets--are still working, and that's a shame. The largest trollers might take 300 chinook in a long day of work, but a commercial trawler can take far more (not to mention many other species as bycatch) in a single set of the net. As late as the early 1990s, 1,800 trollers were on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Today, that number has dropped to 67. It is a pattern that holds from California to the Alaska panhandle: The small-time fishermen, who tended to work sustainably, have been driven out of business, and only the far more efficient, and thus deadly, industrial vessels remain.

At the wheel of the Blue Eagle 1, his 42- foot troller, Mike Smith suddenly extends an arm out to sea. "That's a whale blowing!" he says. "You can smell 'em before you see 'em." Indeed, a fin briefly appears as the humpback dives, and an odor of rotting fish--whale halitosis--permeates the cabin. I've found a place at the galley table, among a genial muddle of charts, lures, and cannonball weights. To starboard, we watch a bald eagle determinedly winging low over the water: "He has probably spotted a herring ball out there," says Smith. "He's going to take a better look."

The summer sun suddenly disappears as we motor into a patch of fog. ("This is the worst month for fog," says Smith, with an endearing chuckle. "We call it Foggest, eh.") Smith slows the Blue Eagle 1 to two and a half knots. Five miles from shore and 34 fathoms beneath us is South Bank, a rich feeding ground for everything from halibut to lingcod. We've already deployed the troller's poles, 40-foot-long booms that jut diagonally from midship, giving the vessel a resemblance to an aquatic praying mantis. Smith shows me how to rig up the lines with hootchies, flashers, plugs, and other lures that attract specific subspecies of salmon. Using a hydraulic motor, Smith lowers the hook into the water, and within minutes, the weighted line goes taut. It has been rigged so that when a fish bites, the hook transfers to a sportfishing rod. I start reeling for all I'm worth.

"It's a chinook!" says Smith. "You can always tell because their mouths flash black." Smith hauls it aboard and dispatches the fish with two sharp blows from a sawed-off hockey stick. We've landed a seven-pounder, about two years old, and we've caught exactly what we are looking for. This is the beauty of the troller. Unlike a trawler, which catches, and often crushes, everything it nets, with hook-and-line you can throw back small and untargeted species, still alive. The bycatch is practically nil.

Smith, 62, began fishing when he was 16, when a fishing license cost $1, and he could catch as many fish as he wanted. Today, a license goes for $720, and he's restricted to fishing a few species of salmon and groundfish in a narrow strip of ocean alongside Vancouver Island. Like fishermen the world over, Smith does his share of finger pointing. He complains about sea lions, which ruthlessly swipe salmon from his hooks (he claims he has seen the big ones teaching the little ones to steal fish). He doesn't care for American fishermen, who have been lobbying for a 30 percent reduction in the salmon catch off Vancouver Island, on the grounds that most of the fish originate in the rivers of the Pacific Northwest. And he resents the "sporties," the sportfishermen who pay just $28 a year for a license and can catch their limit--and probably more-- every day of the year, while too often he is forced to cool his heels on the dock.

But he reserves most of his venom for the salmon farms. "They put the salmon farms too close to the estuaries," he says. "One salmon stream in the Clayoquot has six farms around it. I figure the young wild salmon come down the stream, hang around at the river mouth to fatten up, and end up swimming into those net cages. The farmed fish just gobble them up." Like a lot of fishermen I've spoken with, Smith believes the provincial government considers wild salmon, and independent fishermen, an impediment to development. The omnipresent protected salmon streams, which reach like a network of capillaries into the province's every ecosystem, are rumored to stand in the way of oil and mining exploration, logging operations, and even the damming of the Fraser River for hydroelectricity. A farsighted government bent on resource extraction might adopt a long-term strategy that favors policies that promote salmon aquaculture, to the detriment of the wild stocks.

By midafternoon, we've filled a cooler with halibut, coho, and chinook and are ready to return to shore. "Fishermen are a nuisance," says Smith, as he ties up at the dock in Ucluelet. "The powers that be would rather we were all working at the salmon farms for 12 bucks an hour. They want a bunch of serfs; otherwise, they have to deal with all these people who have opinions." But small-scale fishermen are the heart of communities up and down the coast, and when they aren't pitted against one another by ludicrous quotas and restrictive openings, they're the best possible custodians of the resource. With his neighbor, salmon troller Doug Kimoto, Smith spends his days off the water trucking gravel to nearby streams to create new habitats for spawning salmon. "The previous government did a lot of habitat restoration, but not this one. If we had healthy wild stocks, believe me, it would bring in more money for the economy than fish farms and sportfishing."

Mike Mullin, who gave up salmon trolling and is now an oyster farmer, agrees. "The politicians are totally willing to sacrifice the wild fish," he says. "The big processors and the government would rather deal with a few salmon-farming conglomerates than have to cope with hundreds of cantankerous humans who actually own their own boats. Salmon have survived on this coast for 10,000 years. They're incredibly resilient. If we would back off on pollution and the industrialization of the rivers, stop the logging, and get rid of the net cages, the West Coast would have salmon populations as healthy as what they have in Alaska right now." It could also support a vital coastal population of small-scale trollers--guys like Smith.

It is, I have to admit, puzzling. At Tofino's Raincoast Cafe one night, I watch French and German tourists, sunburned pink after their "aquatic safari" day trips, savoring the $29 spring salmon in Dijon chèvre cream to the rhythm of soothing, ambient trip-hop. Naturally, the salmon on the menu in Tofino is wild; British Columbia has seen a number of campaigns against aquaculture, and no chef at a white-tablecloth restaurant would be caught dead serving the farmed stuff. Yet, as I walk back to my motel on the town's main drag, I am forced to hug the shoulder to avoid the ranks of semitrailers hauling plastic-wrapped pallets full of feed pellets to the dock to supply the salmon farms of Clayoquot Sound.

In British Columbia, wilderness tourism is a $1.6-billion-a-year industry. Ecotourists and sportfishermen the world over come here to experience one of the last intact patches of primordial wilderness on the continent, only to find themselves in a bastion of salmon farming--an industry that might, thanks to parasites and disease, kill off the wild fish on which the ecosystem, and much of the economy, depends. Salmon are the vehicle by which the biological riches of the North Pacific are spread to the land. Swimming inland, often hundreds of miles, to spawn and die, their decomposing bodies provide the nutrients that nourish stands of millennial Sitka spruce, red cedar, and Douglas fir (trees along salmon streams grow three times as fast as their inland counterparts). The entire food chain depends on these fish: Salmon provide 90 percent of the nitrogen in Alaskan brown bears' diets, and even deer gnaw on their spawned-out carcasses. As long-term strategies go, killing off the wild salmon of the Pacific Northwest is about as forward-thinking as deliberately infecting the goose that laid the golden egg with avian flu.

At home later that week, I barbecue the chinook Smith and I caught aboard the Blue Eagle 1. The fillet is not Day-Glo orange, like the artificially tinted flesh of farmed salmon, but a healthy-looking white marbled with pink, a sign that this particular fish had not been eating much krill. Pleasantly gamy, it is firm and well muscled, juicy but not oily, and completely lacking in the gooey fat that makes eating farmed Atlantic fillets such a chore. Rich in omega-3s, low in saturated fats, it is a guilt-free indulgence and bears about as much resemblance to farmed salmon as fine venison does to a cheap package of ground round. It is the taste of my childhood—the essence of the Pacific Northwest—and I don't want it to end.

All Photography © Ian McAllister unless otherwise noted.
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