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Review

Salmon: A Scientific Memoir

By Jude Isabella

October 21, 2015

Review By Stephen Bocking

Inspired by John Steinbeck, journalist Jude Isabella combines narrative and knowledge in a well-crafted and informative ode to the Pacific coast. Her accounts of salmon, science and history are drawn from her studies and from experience, especially time spent travelling along the coast, working with scientists and others who know it well.

One significant theme is the practical, often hard work involved in doing science in the field. For John Reynolds, an ecologist at Simon Fraser University, it means dragging bags of dead salmon through the woods, mimicking wolves and bears so as to understand their role in moving nutrients from ocean to forest. Out at sea with Marc Trudel of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, it is about studying water chemistry and picking through plankton to piece together evidence of what salmon do in the “black box” of the Pacific. And with ecologist Anne Salomon and her students, Isabella plants bags of clams on beaches to understand how they grow when cultivated. Along the way she observes how scientists reason and produce knowledge, how they struggle to gather funding during an era of constrained research budgets, and how science itself on the coast is not just a job, but a way of life.

Isabella also learns, as does the reader, about the ecology of salmon and other coastal species: how they relate to each other, change over time, and experience threats such as climate change and pathogens. Reynolds explains to her why salmon can also be considered creatures of the forest. From Trudel she learns about the uncertain survival of salmon in the Pacific. Salomon shows how clams cultivated by coastal First Nations communities were essential food. These lessons have practical implications, such as the need to be aware of and protect salmon-spawning streams, even the small “ghost” creeks that scientific surveys often miss. Striking observations also emerge along the way, such as the lovely notion that salmon, through their influence on forests, also affect the diversity of birds, and therefore their songs — salmon thus keep the forest in tune.

Many of her most intriguing passages relate to the history of coastal First Nations, as deduced from middens, the ancient remains of fish traps and clam gardens, the memories of Elders, and the reports of early anthropologists. This history also provides a necessary corrective to the common view of British Columbia as the “salmon coast.” While salmon have always been important, so have other foods, including herring, eulachon, clams, and waterfowl. This diversity speaks to what life was like for those who depended on what the coast could provide. It has never been an easy paradise, but rather a place on the edge of an often-chaotic ocean, marked by unpredictable cycles of abundance and scarcity that demanded caution, adaptation, and cultivation of diverse options. Understanding this has required scientists and First Nations, and archaeologists and ecologists, to cooperate — a model, Isabella suggests, of the conduct required if life on the coast is to be guided by knowledge and wisdom.

Salmon: A Scientific Memoir
Jude Isabella
Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2014. 240 pp. $20.00 paper