Book review kindly written by Petra Kerkhove.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Who hears the fishes when they cry?”
These are Mark Kurlansky’s closing words of advice. The salmon are in trouble. Steadily, populations all over the world are diminishing.
Mark Kurlansky is a journalist and writer of general interest non-fiction. He has written over 30 books. He has, in the past, also worked as a commercial fisherman and cook, and this can be seen in many of his previous books’ topics (Cod, The Big Oyster, International Night).
The principal point of this book is not that the salmon is a magnificent animal that holds its own compared to anything on the Serengeti – beautiful in its many phases; thrilling in its athleticism; moving in its strength, determination, and courage; poetic in its heroic and tragic life story – and it would be sad if it were to disappear. All that is true, but a more important point is that if the salmon does not survive, there is little hope for the survival of the planet. (p. 17)
These seem like bold and depressing words, but throughout the book it becomes clear how closely related the state of the planet is to the fragile life cycle of the salmon.
In this book Kurlansky traces the history of salmon, describes the taxonomy, the habitat and their life cycle. He even goes as far back as trying to trace the common ancestor of all salmonids – the family all salmon and trout belong to.
Salmon live in all cold water regions in the northern hemisphere. And where there are people, there will be exploitation. Atlantic salmon have always been consumed in Europe, and people have the tendency to overfish, causing a steady decline in the salmon population. Native Americans always treated salmon with the highest respect: they would only catch as much as they could eat, and made sure that the rivers were suitable habitats for the fish. This meant numbers of fish remained steady and because of this, salmon have fed people for centuries without any decline in their populations. European settlers in North America thought they had more efficient ways of fishing: the canning business became massive due to the plentiful catches in the salmon rivers and the continuous demand for fish. However, their practices weren’t sustainable and they didn’t heed the native populations’ advice. Building dams on big salmon rivers is probably one of the most damaging practices for salmon conservation. If salmon cannot go up the river, they will not lay eggs and their life cycle is broken. People thought that hatcheries would solve the problem of overfishing and dams, but this may even have exacerbated it: the hatchery fish might be damaging the genetic strength of the wild population. Salmon farms are another way of trying to combat the declining volume of salmon. However, there are several issues with putting large amounts of fish in a confined area together: there is an increased risk of contagious disease and, ultimately, high mortality rates. If any fish escape, they could, of course, carry those diseases to the wild populations.
The author suggests that in order to stop this degeneration of salmon populations, we need to remove all dams in salmon rivers. We also need to remove open-pen fish farms and start using enclosed units, which stops fish from escaping and breeding with the wild populations of salmon.
This book is an interesting blend of social history, political criticism and even some added recipes. It is partially about the life cycle of the humble salmon, yet it is a reflection of the state of the planet and humanity as well. The effects of overfishing, pollution and fish farms are directly reflected in the declining status of the salmon.
It is sad to see that man has caused so much irreversible damage – we must do all we can to protect this wonderful creature. Compared to the countless fish only a century ago, the low numbers of salmon left in our rivers are sobering. Without proper management we could be the last people to see these magnificent animals in our rivers.
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