‘Upstream’ book review: any hope for salmon?

​If you’re reading this article, chances are “Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table” by Langdon Cook (Ballantine, $27) won’t teach you too much you don’t already know.

Quick quiz: What are the five species of Pacific salmon found in Puget Sound? Bonus question: If you count two other ocean-going species that are commonly referred to as trout, that makes seven salmonids. What are these two other fish called?

Like I said, easy stuff.

Once you get past the taxonomy, and you know your humpies from your chums, the tale of the disappearing Pacific salmon as explored in “Upstream” has a recurring theme: us vs. them. White anglers blame tribal fishing practices for declining salmon runs. Recreationists blame commercial fishers for indiscriminately catching and killing off salmon they aren’t even targeting. Environmentalists blame hatcheries for sullying the wild gene pool. Almost everyone except major food corporations blames farmed salmon for flooding the market with an inferior product that also gives consumers a false sense of plenitude. Political conservatives blame the liberal mindset behind the Endangered Species Act, which has prompted the government to spend millions of dollars to save a few fish that could be headed toward extinction anyway, no matter what we do. Almost anyone who wants to see these fish survive blame factory farmers, miners and timber harvesters for the die-off. Think Alaska is the last bit of untrammeled wilderness, where wild salmon stocks might be safe? The group proposing Pebble mine in the Bristol Bay watershed has other ideas. (And yes, the proposed mine has been revived under new White House leadership.)

Cook looks at all of these dynamics in “Upstream.” His ability to name all sides in the salmon wars, and to lay out their positions, makes this book worthwhile. Being a well-off white guy from Seattle, Cook also benefits from the power of access—to commercial fishers trying to make their season in the flats off the mouth of the Copper River, to a quirky co-op of reef netters on Lummi Island, to hard-core fly fishers who venture into grizzly territory during their annual trek to a remote British Columbia river, to biologists hunting the ever-elusive salmon in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers of California.

Exploring the various conflicts, Cook seems to draw a clear conclusion about who is to blame for the decimation of the salmon populations.

Make no mistake. The 1974 Boldt decision in federal court may have granted tribes the right to half the salmon fishery every year, but tribes are not to blame for salmon shortages, whatever narrow-minded white fishers might say.

Western expansion meant progress and profit for the white settlers who engineered it in the 1800s. The overriding principles were bending nature to man’s will, and bullying natives who got in the way.

The white newcomers enjoyed technological advantages, such as the fish wheel, an ingenious mill-like contraption that turned in the current, scooping up salon in the process. It was so effective that both Washington and Oregon eventually abolished it.

Even more effective was the use of political power to wrest traditional fishing sites away from Native Americans. Within a few decades, the Columbia River’s mostly subsistence (tribal) fishery was fully transformed into a market fishery…. The year 1911 saw the peak commerical catch, with nearly 47 million pounds of salmon packed, but the river was already in decline by then.

Pacific Northwest tribes were themselves catching about 40 million pounds of salmon annually, at least before they were driven away, killed in battle or died of disease after contact with whites. But there is a huge difference. Referring to the Skeena River of B.C., Cook writes:

In stark contrast to the local tribes, who over millennia had developed fishing rituals and techniques that allowed plenty of salmon to reach their spawning grounds, the white fishermen strung so many nets across the river at all hours of day and night that it’s a wonder any fish made it upstream at all.

A relatively wild river such as the Skeena is in good shape compared to the Columbia River system. The problem with the Columbia and its tributaries, of course, is the dams. An area where Cook offers the most hope for salmon lovers is the proposal to remove the four dams from the lower Snake River, to both enable easier fish passage and create better habitat upstream. Cook was reporting and writing his book before Trump was elected president. Those who seek removal of the lower Snake dams may have an even bigger hurdle to contend with than the fish do.

Wherein does hope lie, ultimately, if anywhere? Much of the optimism Cook describes rings hollow: We can take half-measures to restore habitat now because the next generation will be primed to tear the existing system down. Or, a coming revolution in agricultural productivity that will enable us to feed the world’s booming human population while providing sustainable salmon habitat.

I was able to latch onto a couple messages. The education and advocacy put forward by environmental groups such as Greenpeace misses the point, according to Casson Trenor, Greenpeace activist turned sushi restaurateur, whom Cook includes in his book.

“Education only makes sense for people who already share the same values,” Trenor says.

The fundamental flaw with Greenpeace and many other organizations like it is that at the end of the day the metric for success is the behavior of other people. I don’t believe we can control or affect other people. ... The metrics that we should use for success are about how we change ourselves, how we live, what we create—not be telling other people what to do.”

Going beyond the rather modest goal of changing oneself for the better, I like another idea put forward by Cook in “Upstream.” After all, the threat to salmon is a societal problem and must be addressed by society at large—maybe just not white society. This from Rene Henery, a fisheries ecologist with Trout Unlimited featured in Cook’s book:

Something that conservationists need to wrap their heads around is the connection between salmon and people. For thousands of years, Native Americans were the ultimate stewards of salmon populations. It may well be that we can’t have salmon recovery without the recovery of indigenous cultures.

Henery saw hope in efforts to “bridge cultural and economic gaps” within the conservation community—an effort that would not only broaden the community but make it stronger.

Cook: “Rene’s core belief—for both salmon and people—could be summed up in a few words: strength through diversity. He looked forward to a great reconciliation.”

Cook will appear in Bellingham to promote “Upstream.” He will speak at 7 p.m. on Oct. 20 at Village Books, 1200 11th Street.

About Ralph Schwartz

Posting Citizen Journalist • Member since May 23, 2014

After 13 years in mainstream journalism, Ralph Schwartz left The Bellingham Herald in November 2015. He's now a freelance editor and writer looking for a regular paycheck.

Comments by Readers

Ellen Baker-Glacier

Jul 20, 2017

I’m curious - did this fellow (did the book) provide much information about the 1985 Pacific Salmon Treaty - how it functions?  (“TREATY BETWEEN THE GOVERNMENT OF CANADA AND THE GOVERNMENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA CONCERNING PACIFIC SALMON”,  http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/ia/agreements/regional_agreements/pacific/psc.pdf)  The most recent version I’ve got is dated 2014.  From all I’ve read, it would seem that the lion’s share of fishing occurs in big waters.  Who knows what’s left to return to spawn.


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