Patagonia, 2020. $30, 448 pages. Available here.
IT’S COMMONLY thought that various species of salmon are indicative of the impact of humankind through the fishes’ success, failure, and outright disappearance in some areas. In Salmon, Mark Kurlansky turns his critical, eon-spanning eye to the subject, taking us through the history of various runs, rivers, and fisheries in an attempt to enlighten a readership so well versed in the problems that loss of the indicators seems a foregone conclusion.
It’s a common jibe among anglers that “you should have been here yesterday,” implying that no matter your success it will be a pale reminder of past triumphs, and in truth, this could be the rallying cry of any generation of the Anthropocene. Kurlansky looks beyond this simplification.
Salmon travel. A king salmon will swim for four years at sea and travel some ten thousand miles. At sea, salmon contend not only with the many predators, but also with storms, occasional lack of food, unpredictable climate shifts, and sometimes pollution. But it is in returning to the river that they undertake their most extraordinary journey, one from which they cannot be deterred even though in the end it leads to death. The strongest instinct of all species is to reproduce. In some humans the desire for sex is all that is left of that instinct. In a salmon, the urge to reproduce is far stronger than the urge to stay alive. As long as they can reproduce, they have no fear of death. It is their destiny. And they swim toward it.
The instinct to return to the river of their birth is the key to the salmon, and they have the physical capabilities to back it up, leaping past dams to power upstream. Kurlansky outlines how many have considered salmon the best species to track to understand environmental degradation—the clichéd canary in the coal mine. But paging through the book, peppered with historical illustrations and photos, including brilliant photography of salmon in the wild shot both from the riverbank and underwater, one begins to understand that proximity to man bestows this barometer status. Other fish species may better reflect the collective impact of pollution, fishing, and climate change, but they don’t come to shore to be counted every year. We leap to conclusions because salmon are convenient.
And they’re convenient the world over—not that people have returned the favor and made it easy on them. We’ve damned them with dams and willfully ignored our own laws passed to protect flow and water quality of their rivers in the name of progress.
The author paints a picture of all-too-human abuse—love of salmon, and also disregard for the real needs of the species. Instead of people leaving the fish alone and protecting their habitat, Kurlansky points out, we develop new, insidious solutions under the guise of helping the species survive. “In Scotland a hatchery was built on the River Tay in 1853. Catches on the Tay had steadily declined since the enactment of an 1828 law that extended the fishing season an extra month. Instead of the politically treacherous path of shortening the fishing season again, could they just make more fish? The solution to overfishing had been found.”
Indeed, the portraits Kurlansky creates of how Native peoples managed their fisheries over centuries and even millennia evoke a longing. Salmon would have been fine without us for the most part, but that’s not an option anymore. He creates a complete picture of the salmon-human relationship, time-warping through history, including the recipes that have become a hallmark of his food-based books. One more meal won’t sink a species after all, and the more fully the world values it, the more likely a species will be sustained.
To think the Connecticut River, an hour’s drive from my home waters, could have a world-class Atlantic salmon fishery along the lines that anglers drive full days to sample in New Brunswick is little more than a fantasy. And yet Kurlansky, for all his words outlining the failures and even crimes of humanity toward this fish, manages to instill hope too, noting a colony of salmon found on a tributary of the Connecticut. Perhaps it’s not too much of a leap to hope. O
Jason Y. Wood is a writer and angler who lives with his wife and daughter on the Connecticut coast, where he revels in the change of seasons and savors the stretches in between.