If you're searching for a book that simultaneously carries you away and causes you to more deeply consider the world around you, check out Langdon Cook's Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table. The Wall Street Journal described Upstream as "invigorating" and "a celebration" (which, by the way, are good words to describe the author himself). It also had this to say: "In tracing the history and life cycle of these iconic creatures, Mr. Cook embarks on a series of his own journeys—14 nicely episodic chapters that explore how and where such fish still survive in the modern world, despite the threats of logging, dams, the diversion of running water for domestic and commercial uses, overfishing, and climate change. It is a saga that has been told before but seldom with such immediacy and panache."
Cook is also the author of The Mushroom Hunters and Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager. We asked him to share some photos and notes from his research for Upstream, which was a Best Book of June in nonfiction.
"Salmon: The Last Great Wild Food" by Langdon Cook
YOU CAN BUY salmon any day of the year in just about any fish market in the country. Along with shrimp and tuna, salmon are among the top three favorite seafoods.
But this ubiquity masks an unpleasant reality: most of the salmon sold in the marketplace are either farmed or hatchery-raised. The wild fish—those spawned naturally in a river—are in dramatic decline throughout their range outside Alaska.
The usual culprits are to blame: dams, logging, mining, agriculture, urban development, pollution, overfishing, and so on. This tension between civilization and the wild is at the heart of my book, Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table. The question now: will society make the changes necessary to coexist with a renewable resource that has nourished humanity through the ages?
IN NORTH AMERICA we are more closely tied to salmon than any other wildlife. Entire societies have been organized around the salmon’s lifecycle. To write Upstream, I traveled throughout salmon country, from California to Alaska and east to Idaho, to meet with the people who know these fish best: commercial and tribal fishermen; sport anglers and their guides; scientists and environmental activists; fishmongers, chefs, and everyday consumers.
I joined fishermen in Cordova, Alaska, who depend on robust salmon runs for their livelihoods, helping to harvest the most famous brand of all—Copper River salmon—from a gillnetter’s 900-foot net.
Before the Copper River made a name for itself, however, the most revered salmon came from the Columbia River, where I attended a Native American First Salmon ceremony. People have been fishing along the Columbia for more than 10,000 years and some of these fishing sites represent the longest continual human habitation in the Americas. Each spring, as the dogwoods begin to bloom, spring chinook make their annual spawning run up the river. But the fish are not so plentiful now; the river produces more hydropower than salmon.
To the east in the same watershed, in the arid mountains of central Idaho, I helped wrangle up endangered Snake River sockeye for a last-ditch effort to avoid extinction. These marathoners swim 900 miles upstream to their spawning grounds, surmounting eight hydroelectric dams along the way.
I ALSO MANAGED to do a lot of fishing. Guido Rahr, the head of the Wild Salmon Center, an advocacy org based in Portland that has protected thousands of miles of riparian habitat along the Pacific Rim in both Asia and North America, took me to a small coastal river on the Oregon Coast to fly-fish for one of the last stable runs of wild kings south of Alaska. He refers to such a run as a stronghold because it offers more diversity and abundance than salmon runs in surrounding watersheds. Rahr is trying to save such strongholds now—before they succumb to the usual plights and require more expensive “life support” measures like those for Snake River sockeye.
DESPITE THE BLEAK outlook, there are rays of hope. On Lummi Island in northern Puget Sound, a fishermen’s co-op is harvesting wild salmon using an ancient method that they consider the most sustainable fishery on the high seas. The reefnetters catch fish by guiding them toward a net with a 200-foot-long funnel-like contrivance called a reef. Once the school is spotted in range of the net, the fish are quickly hoisted out of the water and dumped into holding tanks, still alive. This way the salmon can be sorted, with any endangered stocks released to continue their spawning journeys.
And in California, scientists are experimenting with innovative ideas to jumpstart the ecosystem’s natural engines of productivity in one of the most highly managed landscapes in the world, the Central Valley. Formerly the host of epic king salmon runs, the valley now produces by some estimates a third of what America eats. This transformation into national breadbasket, with its commensurate damming, diking, and de-watering of rivers for irrigation purposes, has been a disaster for salmon. But new programs like the Nigiri Project, in which young salmon fry forage in the rice paddies of the lower Sacramento River, are finding ways to reconcile the natural environment with the built environment.
Another ray of hope: Salmon and steelhead are recolonizing the 70 miles of spawning grounds lost behind the two Elwha River dams erected a century ago and recently demolished. This is the largest dam removal to date in the U.S. and has proven that nature can heal “if you give it a little room,” as one of the scientists studying the river told me. The Elwha is an example of a river coming back to life, a process that will likely be replicated elsewhere as the outdated monuments of the Industrial Age give way to new ideas and values.
SALMON REPRESENT FOOD, totem, and inspiration. As one biologist explained it to me: our fates are intertwined—and it’s worth remembering that the world we give to salmon is also the world in which we must live.
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