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Free Range Salmon

The Conscious Life Column -- by Cindy Spring

EarthLight Magazine #45, Spring 2002


Do I relate to Earth as a bounty of resources primarily for human benefit, or am I committed to a sustainable global society founded on respect for all species? Or both? Nowhere do I sense this paradox more clearly than in the stories of the Salmon People.

I am Salmon. Born in a gravel redd in a clear flowing stream, passing a year or so until I can break free of home and keep my date with ocean. I arrive exhausted in a salty world and shape shift to explore the farther reaches of my nature. To a girl from Idaho, Juneau is the big city, and Japan the exotic west. Several years of journeying is enough. The siren song of home calls me back to the same river mouth, the same stream, the same mothering stretch of pebbles. My final act: I turn my body into a shovel, create a new redd, and frenetically dance out my eggs to be fertilized by a hardy partner who has also seen the world. Scraped raw and fatigued by the effort, I die within a day. I offer up my body, muscled by ocean life and the final upstream swim, to continue the life of my community: bear, eagle, otter and human.

I am Salmon. Bred in a batch of identical first cousins in a hatchery, I am one of the lucky ones, taken to a rearing pond, carefully placed at a young age in a foster home. Another trip, another release, this time into a stream tended by caring humans who have tried to remove the logging debris, stop the farm and ranch runoff pollution, and fight for enough water not to be diverted so I can swim to the ocean. I must avoid the turbines of the dams, if I survive the brackish slackwater behind them. In the ocean, trawlers' nets abound. Just like my wild kin, I hear a call to return. Chances are slim but I have no choice. Only the Olympic among us make it up the "fish stairs" alongside the dams. Because I have not lived well, I do not die well. I offer my body anyway.

I am "farmed" Salmon. Born in a tank ten feet wide and three feet deep. After a year or so, I'm released to a gigantic net pen in coastal waters, a hundred feet on a side and 60 feet deep. This is my home, covered with netting so I cannot jump out and birds cannot dive in. Confined in an area befouled with the waste of thousands of trapped salmon, the density is maddening. Antibiotics are pumped in regularly to make sure I don't die of infection. Epidemics happen often. Since my flesh will not turn pink in this prison, my feed is dyed. It's over in a couple of years. My only consolation in this woeful life is that my body feeds people who might otherwise starve. I do not sacrifice freely; I am sacrificed.

Sadness is my first response to the laments of the hatched and farmed salmon. And after that, a determination to support the shift back to letting creeks and rivers run free for migrating salmon. In the Pacific Northwest, small groups of intrepid individuals, like the Mattole Restoration Council in northern California, have been working for over 20 years to reclaim salmon habitat. A success here and there keeps everyone going in the face of continued logging which often undercuts the whole effort. I also support removing dams wherever possible. Since the four dams of the Snake River came on line in the late 1970's, all coho salmon dependent on that migratory corridor through Idaho, Oregon and Washington have become extinct.

If we could somehow end all salmon aquaculture, how do we answer the peoples of the world who depend on those fish? Answer: the same way we are ending the use of fossil fuels and the logging of old growth trees - with a vision of a sustainable and just world and the day-to-day work to make it so. Swimming upstream feels like such an apt analogy to the effort being made to turn commodity mania into community kinship. The difference is so perfectly captured for me in the current court battle to remove a dozen varieties of salmon from the endangered species list because "there are plenty raised in farms." At this point in human evolution, we're all swimming upstream.

I owe my understanding of salmon lives to two books: Totem Salmon, Life Lessons from Another Species by Freeman House (Beacon, 1999), and My Story as Told By Water by David James Duncan (Sierra Club Books, 2001). For a teaching story about humans in communion with salmon, please see the accompanying article by Freeman House. Email me, and let me know if I can post your comments at

 Cindy Spring is an environmental activist and co-author of Wisdom Circles, A Guide to Self-Discovery and Community Building in Small Groups. She can be reached at Cindy Spring 2002

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