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Q&A: Author Mark Kurlansky Discusses Salmon's New England Roots

Male sockeye and one female—the one without the hook jaw at lower right—ready for spawning in the Adams River, British Columbia. (Eiko Jones/Courtesy of Patagonia Books)
Male sockeye and one female—the one without the hook jaw at lower right—ready for spawning in the Adams River, British Columbia. (Eiko Jones/Courtesy of Patagonia Books)

When you think about salmon fishing, you probably think about Alaska or the Pacific Northwest, right? Well, as Mark Kurlansky writes in his new book, "Salmon: The Fish, the Earth, and the History of Their Common Fate," these areas are only a fraction of their original habitat. Until a few centuries ago, these pink, fatty fish were widespread in New England rivers.

Kurlansky, the author of "Salt" and "Cod" spoke to Earthwhile about salmon's important role in our region's history, and why he finds the fish "unstoppable." The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Of all the animals out there, why write a book about salmon?

I see salmon as a kind of a metaphor. In talking about the problems they face — like climate change, which causes drought as well as ocean acidification, warming and salinity changes — you’re talking about so many things that humans are doing wrong to the earth.

And salmon is one of those species that will do a spectacular job of damaging the natural order if you let it go extinct. Declining salmon populations are a threat to all kinds of bird species, marine mammals, bears, otters, beavers, and certain insects.

But as I say in the book, my point here isn't just that salmon are an incredible animal and it would be a great shame if they were destroyed. My point beyond that is that we have to save the earth — that’s how you save the salmon.

So I had no idea before reading your book that salmon were so prolific in New England. What can you tell me about salmon in this region?

All the major rivers of New England and Maritime Canada were salmon rivers: the Connecticut, the Merrimack, the Penobscot, the Kennebec, the Saint Lawrence.

Salmon was so central to New England that when John Adams became president and he wanted New England food in the White House, he had salmon brought in. When I was growing up, no one ate salmon in New England — it wasn’t a local thing. But it was a local thing, just before our time.

Members of the Miꞌkmaq tribe in New Brunswick, pre-1870. (Courtesy Patagonia Books)
Members of the Miꞌkmaq tribe in New Brunswick, pre-1870. (Courtesy Patagonia Books)

You write that “some archaeologists believe that the salmon trade in the Northwest was one of the most important examples of inter-tribal commerce in precolonial North America.” Can you talk a little bit about how important salmon was to the indigenous populations in the Northeast?

Just like native populations in the Pacific Northwest, salmon was very much a part of native peoples’ way of life in New England. These were societies in which salmon were central to their culture, to their religion, to their diet — but because we’ve done such a good job of wiping out the salmon in the Northeast, we’re not as aware of it.

Native people traded salmon a lot, and they were extremely, incredibly skilled fishermen. They really knew how to fish, and yet, they understood how to keep it sustainable, which they understood was really important.

So what caused the salmon population to collapse in New England?

In the Northeast, what killed the salmon in the 18th and 19th centuries was the destruction of their habitat. There are 4,000 dams on the Connecticut River alone — how do you expect salmon to live in a river that’s blocked up like that? And beyond dams, factory pollution killed a lot of fish, and deforestation was a big problem.

Economic development throughout human history has always been about harnessing nature and making it serve you. People weren’t concerned with environmental and habitat destruction; it just wasn’t part of the program. It was part of the program for the natives of North America, and that’s why their fisheries were sustainable. It’s not about the number of fish you catch, it’s about how you take care of the habitat.

Coho salmon eggs. The black dots are the eyes of the embyros. (Courtesy Patagonia Books)
Coho salmon eggs. The black dots are the eyes of the embyros. (Courtesy Patagonia Books)

You write “there is nothing more heartbreaking than the story of the Connecticut River, the river running through my hometown.” Can you unpack that a little more?

The Connecticut River was the salmon river with the largest runs in New England, but it was also seen by industrialists as a river with a considerable amount of force that could really power mills. It was destroyed by the Industrial Revolution, and even when locals tried to bring fish back by breeding them in hatcheries, it didn’t work. They didn’t recognize that if the fish went away because they can’t live there, they still can’t live there unless you fix the initial problem.

We’ve seen the flip side of this play out elsewhere. Recently, there’s been some salmon recovery in the Penobscot River in Maine from taking down some dams, cleaning up the pollution, and doing some reforestation. But they’ve had no successes for years in the Connecticut because they haven’t fixed up the river and there are thousands of dams.

One major difference between the two rivers is that Penobscot is only in Maine, whereas the Connecticut is in four states. This means that getting anything done on the Connecticut River is much more politically complicated than on the Penobscot.

That said, even when salmon in the Penobscot go out to sea, they’re not returning at the rates they should be. In fact, everywhere I went in the North Atlantic I was told that the fish aren’t coming back at the rates they used to.

Coho fry soon after emerging from the gravel in Quinsam River, British Columbia. (Courtesy Patagonia Books)
Coho fry soon after emerging from the gravel in Quinsam River, British Columbia. (Courtesy Patagonia Books)

Do we know why?

Well, I started talking to biologists, and I have to say that in all the years I’ve been writing, this is the scariest thing I’ve ever learned. The oceans are losing their capacity to provide food, and particularly in the North Atlantic along New England. What’s happening is climate change. Rising temperatures and acidification mean that small fish and plankton can no longer grow as well as they used to grow. So when the salmon go to the ocean, they’re not finding the food they need.

If the oceans can’t provide food for us to eat, we are really in trouble.

That's a good segue to talk about farmed salmon, which is another big focus of your book. There’s a lot of debate about whether it’s better to eat wild caught or farmed salmon, and I’m curious where you come down in this debate?

When I was doing my cod book, I was just totally against fish farming or salmon farming, but I've kind of changed my mind about it. Not because it's better than I thought it was, but because I think it has a useful contribution: providing a low cost protein from the ocean with a relatively low carbon footprint.

And that's what salmon farmers originally set out to do; they thought they had this great idea because it would be sustainable, inexpensive and it wouldn't be using much energy. But then came all these problems.

An open cage salmon farm in Scotland. Fully stocked this pen could hold 35,000 Atlantic salmon. (Corin Smith/Courtesy Patagonia Books)
An open cage salmon farm in Scotland. Fully stocked this pen could hold 35,000 Atlantic salmon. (Corin Smith/Courtesy Patagonia Books)

Such as?

Well, first of all, you have to feed the salmon. Fish farmers often ended up feeding them fish from factory trawlers and wasteful fisheries. But even if it was less wasteful, salmon eat a lot, so by the time you get through feeding them, you've killed more wild fish than just killing a wild fish. Fish farmers have been trying to deal with this by lowering the percentage of fish meal in the feed and replacing it with things like soy, but soy isn’t really that sustainable.

Another problem is that sometimes fish escape from these pens. Farmed salmon are weird fish because they've lived their whole life in pens and don't know how to survive in the wild. So if they escape and crossbreed with wild fish, you're creating dumber wild fish that can endanger the whole wild stock. Scientists believe that there's only about 1.5 million wild Atlantic salmon left, and you could have one fish farm with that much. So you know that the farmed fish could easily wipe out the wild fish population.

There's also sea lice, which is this crustacean that attaches itself to salmon. Sea lice generally aren’t that big a problem — one or two might attach to a wild salmon, but they can’t live in freshwater, so they die when the salmon go to spawn. Huge quantities of sea lice have started swarming these fish farming places and they can kill the fish.

Some fish farmers tried to get rid of sea lice by using anti-crustacean chemicals, but what happened? They started killing off lobsters. There's also good reason to believe that sea lice develop an immunity to these chemicals.

I guess what I'm saying is  there’s no easy solutions here, but that with this issue — like a lot of environmental issues — I’ve come to believe that we shouldn’t be so quick to try to ban things. What we should be doing is looking for solutions.

A bear catches a salmon in British Columbia. (Ian Mcallister/Courtesy of Patagonia Books)
A bear catches a salmon in British Columbia. (Ian Mcallister/Courtesy of Patagonia Books)

What's your favorite thing about salmon?

Salmon are just the most incredible animals. They’re unstoppable — they travel thousands of miles to get to the river of their birth just to reproduce (spawn) and die, and they don’t eat while they do this. They live off of the energy they've stored up in the ocean to swim upstream, and they leap over waterfalls and over dams in some cases.

Did you know that if a salmon is leaping over a fall and he doesn't get quite high enough, he falls back and will just try again and again and again until it gets over there? As I said, they’re just unstoppable.

Mark Kurlansky will be in Cambridge Thursday night to talk about his new book. 

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Miriam Wasser Twitter Reporter, EarthWhile
Miriam Wasser is a reporter for WBUR's environmental vertical.

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