Christopher Glen / ecologies building blog 6: thinking with salmon

One does not need to be a paddler to know that we live at the edge of an extraordinarily dynamic and complex ocean edge. The salmon, hatching and passing through the gauntlet of modern rivers, (perhaps ocean fish farms – imagine cattle feed lots doted on Serengeti migratory routes) go on out, bulk up on the oceans biological productivity (food webs), and return to have their biomass subjected to modern fisheries (industrialized off take for human food webs), return to the rivers and terrestrial ecologies to take their chances with spawning. Good luck Justice Cohen.

I’m not sure how much of the history (which is of course ongoing) of science’s research into salmon has been written, but gleaning from Joseph E Taylor Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis (1999) (largely Columbia River based), Mathew Evenden Fish versus Power: An Environmental History of the Fraser River (2004) and Terry Galvin’s (ed) A Stain upon the Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming (2004), one knows that it has been a fraught history. Following Stephen Hume’s coverage of the Cohen Enquiry (in the Globe and Mail) one knows that it remains extremely politicized and holds tensions between agenda driven research and figuring the world and the species at large research. One wouldn’t guess from “local”, “provincial” or even “national” predicaments that there was a whole comparative field, (the Atlantic salmon, in its home and native ocean) with histories of salmon fisheries, population losses, “factory farming” in Norway, Scotland, Ireland, and Chile. Those histories of salmon are also histories of anthropogenic impact, fossil fueled and industrialized, scaled up interests and regulation by states. My reading suggests that the historical lessons learned (or unattended to) are less than encouraging.

Back to B.C., if one follows the salmon story, one can read one’s way into one of the other important West Coast/Interior histories. In the terms I have used previously, Anthropogenic Impact 11 > Anthropogenic Impact 1. My reading is partial but would for example point to the extraordinarily rich volume edited by Hayden A Complex History of the British Columbia Plateau: Traditional Stl’atl’imx Resource Use (1992) (That would be around Lilooet, pre-contact and very much about Fraser salmon and Anthropogenic Impact 1.) It would point to Cole Harris, Making Native Spaces (2002), and Douglas C. Harris’s two volumes Fish, Law and Colonialism: The Legal Capture of Salmon in British Columbia (2001) and Landing Native Fisheries: Indian Reserves and Fishing Rights in British Columbia 1849-1925 (2008).

Conjunctural reading can throw up interesting things. In my Future is Friendly post I referred to Jacqueline Rose’s use of “amnesia.” In the same month, reading Taylor (see above) writing about Salmon “research” and political positioning of “stories” to suit vested interest outcomes, the term he uses is “amnesia”, although in a less fraught register than Rose. But I think Rose’s strong register on amnesia, the deeply problematic cultural handling of profound historical injustices is very much part of the story of Aboriginal-ness, British Columbia-ness, Wild Salmon, and Modernity. My sense of “settler”/aboriginal understandings in this region is that they are substantially marred by misrecognition of the aboriginal experience of history. The drive to move on with development remains largely amnesiac in ways that Rose and Taylor suggest. On a range of issues, there is a widely dispersed aboriginal culture that amounts to a different interpretative community that is not so easily folded into the progressive drive of “development.” This is not about being or not being modern as Jeffery Simpson (yes, the Globe and Mail) has suggested, it is about what kind of modernity we choose (or have imposed upon us). Environmentalists make up a different (fractured), sometimes overlapping “interpretative community. Many aboriginals and environmentalists do not trust the development booster’s assessments, they are not necessarily in accord with the outcomes, and many take a distinctly jaundiced view of the way in which the spoils (unintended consequences and economic benefits) are divided. Understanding those entanglements takes one into biodiversity, food webs, modernity’s successive conceits, and the political economy of difference, the political economy of fisheries — and separately pipelines — and modernity at large. It takes one to the deepening fault lines between Anthropogenic Impact 11 and the functioning of earth science and natural history processes.

The Cohen Enquiry will not be able to resolve the ebb and flow of salmon populations. The science will continue to try and unravel the parameters within which the story can be told. Salmon population flux is part of the oceans/salmon/rivers story, but figuring the Anthropogenic Impact 11 part of the story has become pressing. It will not resolve the competing demands of different interests – aboriginal fisheries (cultural, commercial), commercial fisheries, sport fisheries, and conservation imperatives. Those will continue to evolve historically. There are other challenges to river ecologies that are probably marginal to the Enquiry’s brief, but they are part of the salmon and river ecology predicaments. Witness salmon, ecologies and fisheries on the Sacramento River and the Columbia (Richard White’s Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (1995). They offer what in quite other contexts Benedict Anderson refers to as ‘The Spectres of Comparisons.” For here, those Anthropogenic Impact 11 exemplars should be seared into the ecologists imaginary. Site C is on the Peace (a different watershed, a different ecology, different fisheries whose story will need telling as the north gets more intensively “Canadianized”), but the Fraser, one of the least damned rivers of its scale in the northern hemisphere will never shake off that possibility unless Anthropocene collapses under the burden of its cumulative conceits. Evenden’s history, Fish versus Power is by no means a finished story, and to the extent that “wild” salmon are rendered a residual resource, of marginal economic value, and of insufficient ecological value, the way is cleared for “Power.”

The Cohen Inquiry will surely have to speak to the mess within and between Federal Departments, within and between Provincial Departments, and between Federal and Provincial levels of state supervision. For the lay person finding ones way through this would be a life sentence. But it is the nexus out of which Anthropogenic Impact 11 is regulated. The various departments are the ones that lobbyists relentless work to pursue their interests. In general, it seems the state has heavily privileged powerful sectors within the economy over other more complex interests. Historically, this has involved structuring law and regulations to prefer commercial fisheries over aboriginal fisheries, and now commercial fisheries (including Open Ocean based exotic fish factory “farms”) over salmon ecologies (and continued aboriginal interest in those ecologies).
Need I say, this “structural” favoring of Anthropogenic Impact 11 over an Alternate Modernity’s concern for Ecologies is very much the order of the day? The commercial fisheries (a very real part of the economy and livelihoods) come out of the can-do admixture of capital and technology. This entails bigger and bigger catches (efficiency) of the “wild”, expansion of the “Open ocean exotic fish factory “farm”“ sector to suit vested interests and the political economy as understood by some. The unintended consequences, complex, difficult to figure, prove and so on, are as we have addressed previously, externalities, the price of development, are of little interest to those who would dispense with regulation and red tape.

The current government is moving on files here that one can only hope the Cohen enquiry looks straight in the eye, and, you know, speak truth to power. The first is the Fisheries Act, which if amended in the direction “floated” will diminish the responsibility of the State and the DFO (no Rainbow Warrior that it is) to protect marine ecologies. The implications are substantial. In part it is a clearing of impediments entailed in environmental assessments in shipping channels (Enbridge).Another file (which as with so many is not unproblematic) is the one that looks to consolidate state funded research to increasingly favor market ends, something that reaches deep into the aboutness of universities, their mandates most broadly conceived. This is not something to leave entirely to a can-do chiropractor to oversee.. The third file is the tightening up of state sponsored messages, i.e. the muzzling of scientists in state employ who speak on issues of their own, or public disquiet. The very lightly amplified story of the Canadian Science Writers Association letter to the Prime Minister, criticizing the government for barring of State employed scientists speaking to the public, or keeping them on managed messages that reflect government policy.

These issues are connected. A scientist working outside of market rationalities is less likely to have research projects. If they do, and they are funded by the state, they may be barred form speaking unless on message with government policy (a policy micromanaged from the PMO. Direct exchange between an interested public and scientists (rather than their managers) is fundamental to an informed democracy, however curtailed it is in reality. It is a crass control of and politicization of what is, and should be public commons knowledge. The Fisheries Act rewrite is about enabling Anthropogenic Impact 11. Science at large is where we increasingly look to audit that. The scientists so engaged, and there should be many of them, across the array of disciplines, should be politically unencumbered by proscriptive party politics. That does not of course render them apolitical. They remain citizens participating in the interpretative communities that need to find a way in the future food webs with energy demands that don’t compromise the planetary future. They should be free to speak to that, and a robust public culture should facilitate the best interpretative communities we can muster.

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