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Atlas of Pacific Salmon

By Xanthippe Augerot

November 4, 2013

Review By Joseph Taylor

Journalist Timothy Egan once wrote that the Pacific Northwest “is wherever the salmon can get to.” As woefully provincial as he was, Egan unwittingly revealed the absence of an alternative way to regionalize the seven anadromous species of the Oncorhynchus genus (colloquially: cherry, chinook, chum, coho, pink, sockeye, and steel head) that range across the northern Pacific and Arctic Oceans. Xanthippe Augerot’s Atlas of the Pacific Salmon finally fills that vacuum, radically revising how we spatialize salmon. The Atlas’s illustrations offer an integrative, intercontinental perspective on nature and humans. Its maps and charts create an insightful way to understand the geography of salmon runs, people, habitats, harvests, and protection. The book’s scope is stunning, and its implications for future research and activism are highly significant. But because the Atlas is both a scholarly and a political text, the interplay of these agendas sometimes leads to problems. The graphics are extremely sophisticated, but they are occasionally undermined by a text containing errors, redundancies, and jarring arguments. The book’s contributions are truly great, but its limitations are considerable.

The Atlas’s primary achievement is a systematic vision of Oncorhynchus. Augerot spent a decade at Oregon State University and Portland’s Wild Salmon Center assembling and analyzing data from published reports, grey papers, and researcher opinions – what Augerot terms “best expert judgment data” (x). He then used gis tools to construct a spatial framework that evolved from two major divisions (Artic and Pacific) through finer gradations to a final mapping of sixty-six ecoregions. This spatialization of Pacific salmon reflects a geographical schema informed by “Evolutionarily Significant Units” (20), a concept derived from the scientific and legal reasoning of the Endangered Species Act. Whether this makes scientific, historical, and cultural sense across Oncorhynchus’s entire range is uncertain, but the result is impressive. Augerot has created a bioregional perspective that encompasses the Artic from Russia’s Lena River to Canada’s Coppermine River, and the Pacific from Kyushu Island in Japan to Baja California in Mexico. This vision is both breathtaking and practical. One glance at the amazing scope of these maps, and readers will realize that Augerot has created a framework for making substantive comparisons about species, runs, habitats, harvests, and resilience across Oncorhynchus’s entire range. Add to that the artfulness of the maps and photos, and this book has an impressive Wow! factor.

The maps are so dazzling, though, that they can mask key technical problems. For example, the goal of the Atlas is not only to illustrate the range of Oncorhynchus but also to compare runs and habitats via a consistent analytical scale. This is extremely important, yet the underlying science is in places threadbare. As Augerot notes, his reliance on “best expert judgment” for poorly researched areas (mostly in Asia) means that some ecological assessments are prone to “perception bias, which can skew results” (65). Other areas are simply black-boxed, including ocean migrations, eleven Pacific ecoregions, and most Arctic runs. This is a problem because Augerot emphasizes that “salmon distribution is shrinking at the southern edges of the range across the North Pacific” (66), but he pays no similar attention to colonization in far northern streams, such as on Banks Island in the Beaufort Sea, where sockeye and pink salmon recently appeared for the first time in Inuit memory.

This matters because the Atlas is both a scientific study and a political tract for elevating awareness of Oncorhynchus over its entire range. The concern about southern runs is sound, but the analytical gaps for northern runs present an opening for political foes, who can rightly note that, in some respects, we are observing not simply a shrinking but a shifting salmon range. In other words, the Atlas’s blank spots are a rhetorical flaw that cynics can exploit. There is indeed a northward shift taking place, but it is more complicated than critics admit. As anthropologist Randall Schalk noted a generation ago in “The Structure of an Anadromous Fish Resource” (in Lewis Binford, ed., For Theory Building in Archaeology (New York: Academic Press, 1977), 207-49, the margins of salmon habitat fluctuate in wildly unreliable ways, so the novel appearance of fish in the Arctic is not a signal that all is well. Recent colonizations may or may not be ecologically significant, but by not discussing the issue, Augerot has left an opening for opponents.

In this and other instances, the Atlas would have been served better by more careful deliberation. There are not only minor errors (the first Canada-US salmon treaty was in 1937, not 1939 [42]; British Columbia’s largest agricultural product is not farmed salmon at C$390 million annually [36] but marijuana at about c$4 billion annually) and irritations (many redundancies in the section on distribution and risk of extinction) but also major flaws. For example, Augerot links cultural diversity of indigenous peoples to the biological diversity of salmon (18- 20), employing a form of geographical determinism that geographers shelved in embarrassment a half century ago. He also advocates turning large portions of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula into a park to protect salmon from poachers (99). A key implication of home-stream theory is that transplanting salmon to other streams is highly problematic, and repopulating streams through straying takes place on a geological time scale. Thus setting aside single streams – a suggestion first made in the 1890s by Livingston Stone – offers constrained benefits. Moreover, Augerot’s ex planation of poaching is circuitous and thinly documented, and he does not grapple with recent scholarship concerning the racist and classist implications of poaching charges in conservation history. Given that he is addressing a region that is coveted by elitist anglers, yet that is home to people who were already harvesting salmon roe when Georg Steller visited in 1740, a loaded issue like poaching requires far greater care than is evident.

The book’s achievements are huge. Its conceptual approach is pathbreaking, and its spatial frameworks are broadly relevant and highly appealing. For all the value of the maps, however, readers must treat the text with circumspection because its scholarship and politics occasionally collide in messy and unsettling ways.