Save Salmon by Eating It, Shoppers Toldby Jennifer Anderson
Tigard Times, July 17, 2008
New Seasons campaign aims to protect Alaska's threatened fishery
It's a no-brainer for many eco-conscious shoppers in Portland to buy locally grown produce, free-range chicken and natural beef.
Many even take pains to choose wild over farmed salmon.
But how many people are familiar with the fight to protect and support Bristol Bay salmon, one of the latest and most urgent campaigns in the sustainability world?
Bristol Bay, the world's largest sockeye fishery, is located in a pristine watershed off the southwest coast of Alaska and is known for spawning and harvesting of all five species of Pacific salmon - king, sockeye, silver, chum and pink.
The fish is exported to Europe and Asia as well as to Portland and other domestic cities, but for some reason, it's rarely labeled as Bristol Bay salmon.
Local conservation groups and Portland's nine New Seasons markets are launching a campaign this summer to change that, to draw awareness to the dual environmental threats currently facing Bristol Bay.
Within a few years, conservation advocates say, Bristol Bay's $325 million fishing industry could be destroyed by pollutants if the area is opened for offshore oil and gas drilling exploration as proposed by the federal government.
In addition, there's controversy over a massive gold, copper and molybdenum mine, called Pebble Mine, which could be operational at the headwaters of Bristol Bay as early as 2010.
Anchorage-based Northern Dynasty Mines Inc. expects to decide by next year whether to apply for permits for the open-pit mine, which Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has remained neutral on.
The debate is the subject of a new independent film called "Red Gold," which won an audience award at the Mountainfilm festival in Telluride, Colo., in late May.
So how does the environmental condition of Bristol Bay affect consumers in Portland?
Starting this month, New Seasons markets - which carry fresh Bristol Bay salmon for $14.99 per pound - will label the fish as such, with large stickers that read: "Vote with your fork: Save Bristol Bay."
Not many other local retailers sell Bristol Bay fish; Whole Foods Market does not, but is selling sockeye salmon from Alaska now at $18.99 per pound.
Fresh Copper River salmon, another high-quality salmon from Alaska, is currently out of season.
Wild Oats is selling king chinook from tribal fisheries along the Columbia River at $19.99 per pound, but most of the fresh salmon here still comes from Alaska because Oregon fisheries have been all but shut down in recent years with bad conditions due to environmental factors.
From the California coast, up north to Manzanita, Oregon's fishery closures have been blamed on the pollution from development along California's Sacramento River Delta.
Climate change also may play a role; colder ocean temperatures equal good salmon survival rates and returns, which is why the runs are still strong in the colder waters off Alaska.
Since not many people are familiar with Bristol Bay salmon, New Seasons grilled free samples for customers in their stores over the course of one weekend in June, to both market the product and draw attention to the issue. It was such a hit that shoppers bought out the store's entire stock, according to New Seasons President Lisa Sedlar.
"One person's purchases make a difference," Sedlar said. "If the regular, everyday shopper knows what the story is, that has so much potential in terms of dollars. We're influencing what we buy. And time's running out."
It may seem counterintuitive to try to support a population of fish by killing and eating it, but Bristol Bay's salmon stock is a strong, renewable resource, advocates say.
During the salmon sampling last month, New Seasons shoppers also got to meet a crew of Bristol Bay fishermen who flew down to Portland in the middle of their season to tell their stories. One of them was Ben Blakey, who also is a volunteer for Trout Unlimited, the conservation group taking the lead on the campaign.
Bristol Bay salmon "has yet to show up on the radar" in most of the Lower 48, Blakey told the Portland Tribune a few days later from a fishing boat in Naknek, Alaska, on Bristol Bay.
"It's important to get people aware this is a specific area, not just coming from the state of Alaska. It's coming from a river system, a part of the bay that's under threat," he said.
Longtime Portland fisherman Jerry Reinholdt, who supplies New Seasons with salmon from Oregon, Washington and Alaska, said he doesn't feel slighted that Bristol Bay salmon is getting all the attention.
"As fishermen, it's all a big pond to us," he said. "When it comes to fish, they're all in the pond and all migrate. We're greatly concerned about anything that affects the habitat anywhere on the West Coast, all the way to Russia. Everything impacts our runs. Anything negative impacts the environment."
It's not just the Oregon Coast that has suffered. Commercial fishing along the Columbia River also has been constrained in recent years, due to two factors: an increasing number of fish stocks listed on the federal endangered species list, and the impact of the hydroelectric dams, which can keep smolt (juvenile fish) from reaching the ocean.
There have been some reports that the situation in the Columbia is improving as the stock is replenishing, but the count is still below the 10-year average.
Elizabeth Dubovsky, Trout Unlimited's WhyWild program coordinator, said it's important for people to be aware of what's going on.
"There's less local salmon available, meaning it's even more important to protect the really healthy, productive pristine fisheries we have in Alaska," she said.
Lessons can be learned from the damage that's been done to the fisheries in Oregon and California, said John North, Columbia River Fisheries manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"When you put that many demands on a river system - intensive harvest at the turn of the century, logging, road development, farming, irrigation, hydropower - we've just really taxed the system," he said.
"Certainly, you can learn from that. I think at one point in the Columbia we thought we could overcome that by building hatcheries, but now when you look at it, that doesn't help the wild fish."
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