Salmon: A Scientific Memoir




Isabella, Jude

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The reason for this story was to investigate a narrative that is important to the identity of North America’s Pacific Northwest Coast – a narrative that revolves around wild salmon, a narrative that always seemed too simple to me, a narrative that gives salmon a mythical status, and yet what does the average person know about this fish other than it floods grocery stores in fall and tastes good. How do we know this fish that supposedly defines the natural world of this place? I began my research as a science writer, inspired by John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, in which he writes that the best way to achieve reality is by combining narrative with scientific data. So I went looking for a different story from the one most people read about in popular media, a story that’s overwhelmingly about conflict: I searched for a narrative that combines the science of what we know about salmon and a story of the scientists who study the fish, either directly or indirectly. I tried to follow Steinbeck’s example and include the narrative journeys we take in understanding the world around us, the journeys that rarely make it into scientific journals. I went on about eight field trips with biology, ecology, and archaeology lab teams from the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans onboard the Canadian Coast Guard Ship the W.E. Ricker, and an archaeological crew from the Laich-Kwil-Tach Treaty Society in Campbell River, B.C. At the same time, I was reading a number of things, including a 1938 dissertation by anthropologist Homer Barnett from the University of Oregon titled The Nature and Function of the Potlatch, a 2011 book by economist Ronald Trosper at the University of Arizona, Resilience, Reciprocity and Ecological Economics, and works by psychologist Douglas Medin at Northwestern University and anthropologist Scott Atran at the University of Michigan, written over the past two decades, particular paying attention to their writings on taxonomy and folkbiology. My conclusions surprised me, a little.



Folk biology, Traditional knowledge, subsistence technology, historical ecology, potlatch, neo-indigenous, adaptive capacity, Kwakwaka'wakw, Stó:lō, Tla'amin, Heiltsuk, Coast Salish, Central Coast, creative non-fiction, clam gardens, fish traps, First Nations, Fisheries, Anthropology