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Salmon Is More Than A Sushi  Ingredient

Image adapted from original by U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceSalmon are an incredible species. Besides their pivotal role in the ecosystem and matter cycling, they are an important cultural symbol of some aboriginal communities where they bear spiritual meaning. However, wild salmon populations are declining due to habitat loss, overfishing and interbreeding with genetically modified fish escaping from farms.

Salmon’s essential role in the ecosystem

Salmon are not like any other fish. Being a keystone species, they represent an essential part of their local ecosystem and are a crucial food source for local people as well as wildlife that depend on their high nutritional value. Thanks to the annual salmon migration, populations of killer whales, bears, eagles, and other iconic predators flourish.

Salmon are an anadromous species, which means that they spend part of their lives in fresh water and part in salt water. A salmon will be born in a river where it gathers its strength. In its teenage years, once the fish is strong enough, it leaves its home and swims downstream to the sea. Before it reaches the open water, it has to undergo the process of smoltification to adapt its body to salt water. The fish spends its mature life in the sea and once the time for breeding comes, it sets out for an incredible journey back home.

To reach the river, a typical salmon has to travel up to 1,000 miles upstream. Hundreds of fish fight with the river flow, jump through waterfalls and let their senses navigate them to the stream where they were born. This “salmon run” takes place during autumn and has become a motive for various celebrations of local communities.

By being anadromous, salmon play a significant role in matter cycles as they return essential nutrients from oceans back to the freshwater system. After spawning, mature fish die in the river and their carcasses release precious marine nutrients, particularly phosphates, into the water. Moreover, thanks to wild animals that prey on salmon, the nutrients are spread to the surrounding forests and enrich the soil and trees with nitrogen.

Salmon as a spiritual animal

For centuries, salmon have been a primary food source and important part of the economy of aboriginal communities. This iconic fish represents the cycle of life and the laws of nature. It has also become a part of some religious ceremonies - its annual return is connected to various traditional activities and rituals. Due to its nutritious value, the appearance of salmon means life and therefore it is honoured and celebrated.

Flickr | Wonderlane

A study conducted by Catherine Moncrieff examines the importance that local communities ascribe to this species. As a population of Chinook salmon in the Yukon River in Canada was declining, authorities made its fishing illegal. However, this ban was very harmful to local communities. Not only did the people lose a significant source of nutrients and have to replace it with expensive and less nourishing supermarket food - they also had to sacrifice their cultural traditions. Fishing is an important activity that connects generations and teaches the youth about their way of life. Therefore, its ban threatened community wellbeing.

Why we are losing these incredible animals

Salmon are an indicator of healthy rivers and environments. Their population decline speaks for itself. One of the major factors affecting the species is habitat loss caused by industrialization, deforestation, farming and pollution. This goes hand in hand with hydropower dams that pose an obstacle for salmon migration. To overcome this problem, scientists constructed special “salmon cannons” that literally shoot the fish over a dam.

Another factor that is contributing to salmon decline is overfishing. Salmon is considered an exceptionally nutritious food recommended for a healthy diet. Whilst salmon farms could seem to be a decent solution, they can be in fact harmful to the wild populations. Frequent escapes from farms lead to interbreeding with native salmon - weakening populations. Moreover, the farms generate pollution in the rivers and use an unnecessary amount of resources. The salmon is a predator itself, which means it must be fed by other fish. In fact, producing 1 kilogram of farmed salmon requires 3 to 4 kilograms of anchovies and mackerel.

Farmed salmon might even be unhealthy for human bodies because of the toxins coming from artificial colouring and high levels of carcinogens that are contained in their feed. Furthermore, Greenpeace included Antarctic salmon (both farmed and wild) to their list of unsustainable seafood which conscious consumers should avoid. Large farms also threaten the local economy of aboriginal communities that use salmon as their main source of income.

Contributing to salmon conservation requires reconsideration of our consumption. We should be aware of where the fish is coming from, whether it is wild or farmed and if the fishing or farming is sustainable. We can also support organizations that focus on salmon protection. However, as habitat loss and climate change are major contributors to salmon population decline, the solutions might be more complex. Guido Rahr warns that the last strongholds in the Pacific Rim are threatened by the logging industry. He says that instead of restoring the populations of salmon that are nearly extinct, we should put more effort into protecting those.

By Eliška Olšáková - Online Journalism Intern

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