Praising, and then panning, Alaskan salmon

A columnist writing in The New York Times boycotts wild Alaskan salmon, a 180-degree turn from an earlier position in favor of the fishery. Is his reversal motivated by the need to publicize a new book?
Crosscut archive image.

Sockeye salmon. (NOAA)

A columnist writing in The New York Times boycotts wild Alaskan salmon, a 180-degree turn from an earlier position in favor of the fishery. Is his reversal motivated by the need to publicize a new book?

Someone should write a book about all the screwy, or just plain dumb solutions that have been proposed to ensure survival of the world's wild salmon stock, but not Canadian author Taras Grescoe. He should get a few pages, not as a writer but as an object lesson.

Grescoe announced in The New York Times that he has quit eating wild salmon, at least until next year, as his personal contribution to the survival of the species. By inference he suggested we all should do the same.

"This year, for the sake of the remaining wild salmon on the West Coast, as well as my own health, I'm changing my diet. Whether it's wild or farmed, I'm swearing off salmon," he declared.

This is the kind of fuzzy logic that can get a celebrity on Oprah, but if you're asking yourself "Who the heck is Taras Grescoe?" it's clear he hasn't reached that level of fame. Grescoe is a serious non-fiction author and magazine journalist who has published three books and won several Canadian writing awards. Unfortunately, the seemingly noble sacrifice he announced in the Times smacks of a publicity stunt for his latest work, Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood. It wouldn't be the first time the "Grey Lady" has been rudely used.

Grescoe says things that most fishermen and fish consumers alike would not dispute. Wild Atlantic salmon are commercially extinct. Salmon farming is a wasteful method of food production that consumes as feed more seafood than it produces and adds harmful chemicals to the already-polluted human food chain. Many stocks of West Coast salmon south of Alaska are in serious trouble, thanks to dams and habitat degradation.

Grescoe called fish farming an essential industry in need of reform, including the removal of net pens from wild salmon migration routes to halt the spread of sea lice from the manufactured to the wild species. He applauds fish farmers who have moved their operations to onshore tanks and calls on lawmakers to remove dams, spend money on habitat restoration, and reduce river and ocean fishing quotas.

He is complimentary of Alaska and notes that "its coastal waters and cold rivers still teem with healthy salmon runs." So why isn't he just doing a little more label-reading when he shops for his seafood protein? According to his column, wild salmon cost too much.

"As much as I'd enjoy a fresh chinook fillet from the Copper River, at $2.50 an ounce this summer, I just can't afford it," he wrote. He lives in Montreal and didn't say whether he was pricing in U.S. or Canadian dollars, so his $40 per pound rate could be even higher than a struggling writer could afford.

That and the timing of his Times piece are why his pledge seems to be a publicity-based one. Grescoe hasn't long held the view that we should keep wild salmon off our dinner plates.

In an April 29 Salon interview, he said the condition of Alaska's wild salmon stocks is "pretty good" and suggests, "If you want to make a canned salmon sandwich or something like that, look for any can that has Alaska stamped on it. They should be all over. It's fantastic for you, and it's really clean protein."

Grescoe is also creative in his suggestions for appropriate seafood consumption. In his February Times column, he suggests consumers can help reduce the spread of invasive species like Asian carp or jellyfish that are carried to new habitat in ship ballast water tanks by eating them.

He also took a more nuanced and creative approach to seafood consumption and, as in his book, urges consumers to be more selective in their dining choices. While harshly criticizing shrimp farmers for their use of pesticides and antibiotics, he told Salon, "I don't want to condemn all shrimp out of hand," and he gives another boost to tank farming as well as wild shrimp harvesting in Canada and Great Britain, which he calls "fantastic."

Grescoe's book was also published in April, and by the time his latest Times column appeared in June, Grescoe seems to have completed his transition from finer distinctions to blanket solutions while at the same time announcing his own reformation. He told Salon that he wrote Bottomfeeder after growing tired of writing "food porn." He explained:

There's this food-writing convention where you're not supposed to think about the origins of your food and suspend any judgment against people who eat endangered songbirds, or whatever. It's been a real privilege to be able to write articles about this kind of thing. But after a while, you know what? You're contributing to the impoverishment of the world. In a way this is a bit of a 'Fuck you' to the food-writing world.

He adds that food writers do have an ethical responsibility to discuss sustainability, but says for the last 10 or 15 years that duty hasn't received the respect it deserves, apparently including himself among the whores.

Not quite the confession of conscience Oprah would expect, but maybe he's saving that for prime time.

Most of Grescoe's high-sounding culinary ideals seem, eventually, to get linked to price. He recalled to Salon that, when he was a kid, his mother paid as much as $20 a pound for salmon that tasted "fantastic" and suggests that it and shrimp "should be luxury food." Yet a close read of his Times column shows that none of the problems related to seafood he notes apply to Alaska wild salmon. His only complaint is that it cost too much.

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) responded to Grescoe's column with a letter to the Times, which at this writing had not yet been published. When a pre-publication notice of his book appeared in the Times, ASMI followed up with more information on Alaska's salmon fisheries.

"I believe it's very myopic for someone to propose Alaska producers be boycotted because it penalizes Alaska instead of rewarding us for our fisheries management practices," ASMI public affairs director Laura Fleming told me. She also said Grescoe visited Alaska and spent some time on a troller in the Southeast region, which would seem to compound the clumsiness of his Times column, but consistency isn't his strong point either.

In the Salon interview, he advised consumers to use monitors like the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program as a guide to the right seafoods to eat, but Seafood Watch endorses Alaska salmon. Grescoe says pollock is "very abundant" and approves of its consumption in McDonald's "Filet-O-Fish" sandwiches. At the same time he condemns the Norwegian multi-national corporations that control the salmon-farming business.

Grescoe doesn't criticize agricultural farmers for using fertilizers that continue to create giant dead zones in coastal waters. He doesn't suggest consumers' more efficient use of electricity would reduce the need for dams. I didn't get the chance to ask him to clear up these inconsistencies. His Montreal phone number is unlisted, and my calls to his publisher were not returned. My e-mail request for an interview that an editor at the The New York Times promised to send to him also got no response.


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