Along the West Coast, in Oregon, Washington and Alaska, fishermen are hauling in their salmon catches before winter sets in. Wild-caught salmon—the premier varieties of Chinook, Sockeye and Coho—can sell for $15/pound to $25/pound.
This year, that wild salmon has been more abundant, and possibly a bit cheaper, than in recent years. And yet, Google “salmon” and ominous headlines also come up: about this year’s severe drought, endangered salmon runs across the western U.S, as well as looming long-term threats from climate change.
“The abundance of salmon that we have is sort of a conundrum to consumers, because they also hear stories about ESA-listed (Endangered Species Act) runs of fish, and that can make it quite confusing.” said Stuart Ellis, fish biologist at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in Portland, Oregon. CRITFC represents several Native American tribes with treaty rights to catch fish and manage hatcheries throughout the Columbia River system, which stretches hundreds of miles from the Oregon-Washington coast, to British Columbia.
Native fisherman Ira Yallup, 45, knows both sides of this story from a lifetime of fishing for salmon in the tributaries of the Columbia River in Washington. In October, he was fishing with friends and family from the Yakama Nation at a traditional site above Lyle Falls on the Klickitat River. The method of fishing has been passed down for generations; the fishermen use dipnets to snag the fish as they make their way upriver, jumping the rapids.
“This is the most fish I’ve ever seen,” said Yallup, who uses the catch to feed his family, donate to other tribal members, as well as sell to supplement his income as a forester. “This year, with the significant amount of fish that have returned, the price has dropped, because there’s an overabundance of fish.” Yallup said he’s been getting between $0.80/pound and $1.50/pound for fresh-caught fish. Prices were higher in the spring before there was as much oversupply.
Stuart Ellis said salmon returns this year to the Columbia River above Bonneville Dam (about 150 miles from the mouth of the river) are higher than at any time since the 1920s. “This year it’s going to be a little over 2 million fish total,” he said. “So it’s a modern-day record.” Fish returns are believed to have been in the 15-million-plus per year range in the mid-1800s, before dams, agriculture and over-fishing decimated the fish returning to the river.
Alaska has also seen some strong salmon runs so far this year, after a record harvest in 2013. Meanwhile, in California, which is home to another major river system that historically produced large numbers of fish, the situation has been grave this year.
“After this year’s drought, millions of salmon would be migrating down the Sacramento River right now. But instead, the salmon are headed for the ocean in a convoy of tanker trucks,” was the headline on a news report in March 2014 on KCRA television in Sacramento. Fish biologists worried that low water levels and high temperatures caused by the multi-year drought were endangering salmon eggs and hatchlings.
Stuart Ellis explains the disconnect in the West Coast salmon’s health this way: favorable ocean conditions over the past few years helped salmon that are now coming back to Pacific Northwest rivers to spawn. The numbers have also been boosted by hatchery-released fish, improvements in fish-passage technology at dams, better water management and habitat restoration.
Meanwhile, disastrous river conditions for eggs and juvenile salmon, caused by the severe drought that has hit the West, and especially California, may kill off some of the fish that would be returning from the ocean in 2017 and beyond.
And long-term problems threaten salmon across the region: habitat loss, water shortages and conflicts with agriculture, dwindling snowpack, climate change.
“Regardless of a consumer’s socioeconomic status or ability to buy, we’re all concerned global warming could be an issue, we’re all aware of these longer-terms problems,” said Kelly Goldsmith, assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
Goldsmith studies the interplay of environmental issues and consumer decision-making. She thinks at this point, it is hard for even well-informed foodies to sort through the news and science, as well as environmental labeling programs by groups like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, that certify fish in grocery stores and restaurants as “sustainable.”
“Consumers develop this conditioned response where, ‘if I eat salmon, I’m doing something bad,’” said Goldsmith. “The salmon is delicious, but another element of my consumption experience is, ‘I feel bad, because I know there are only so many left in the river.’ It becomes nearly impossible to know how to do the right thing.”
So far, though, consumers aren’t abandoning wild salmon; quite the contrary. With health concerns increasing, and savvy marketing of wild salmon by fishing groups, consumption has risen over the past decade. So have the prices consumers are willing to pay for their prime salmon steaks and filets.
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