by Paul Lindholdt

Recently the Bush Administration released a new policy: Artificially raised hatchery salmon may be labeled in the same way as wild, naturally spawning salmon. This improvident policy opens the door for weaker habitat protections and, some scientists say, makes wild salmon more vulnerable to extinction. The plan has drawn criticism from more than one-fifth of the U.S. House of Representatives.

If you are feeling confused about how salmon can be sold in markets today and yet listed as endangered species, you're in good company. The new Bush policy is apt to confuse the issues further. Then too, some economists will tell you that the cost of saving wild salmon is simply too high.

We can help salmon by using grocery stores as polling booths, for every dollar we spend on food is a de facto vote. We can vote for organic foods vs. conventional foods; genetically modified vs. non-modified foods; foods raised locally vs. foods imported from foreign lands or transported from distant states. On the other hand, we may say that we are too harried to wonder or worry, too occupied with our private lives to care.

Even so, most people enjoy the taste of salmon. It's a traditional food in the Pacific Northwest, eaten by many generations of Native Americans and fewer generations of Euro-Americans. Whether baked, saut & eacute;ed, barbecued or raw in sushi, salmon also helps keep hearts healthy through the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids it contains.

What prove more confusing, though, are the ads and labels that declare some of the fish to be farm-raised and some of it wild. Here the stakes are very high indeed -- both for people as eaters of the flesh of these fish, and for the survival of the wild salmon themselves.

There are compelling reasons to vote with our pocketbooks for the survival of wild fish, although it might seem at first glance counterintuitive to buy and eat the very things we hope to save. If we think like subsistence hunters, though, we want our prey base to survive so that we survive in turn.

A vote for wild fish -- by demanding it in groceries and restaurants and buying it when available -- will boost the chances this fish will survive and create markets for it. Buying and eating the wild salmon will achieve demand and enhance its scanty chances for survival.

Markets wield the power to bring about great change. If grocers and producers count our votes -- if they see us choosing wild fish over farmed fish and expressing willingness to pay more for it -- laws are apt to follow and help to restore sockeye, silver and red coho, Chinook, pink and chum salmon runs.

Unless you see the words "wild" or "wild-caught" at the supermarket or on the menu, you can bet you are buying farmed fish -- often phrased "Fresh Atlantic salmon" in industry-speak. Species that still spawn naturally are being edged out by the big industrial concerns.

Those concerns hope we will remain unconcerned, that we won't demand food that is healthy and fish that are wild. If you are nonplussed about the fate of the remaining indigenous fish in their natural habitats, there are still compelling reasons for you to contemplate buying wild fish. Consider the ways that salmon are fed and farmed in nets and holding pens.

Pen-raised fish rely on ingesting dyes to give them the brilliant color we associate with fresh meat. It's a riddle we're becoming used to: What looks best to eat might be the most artificial. Even more worrisome for us should be the chemical-riddled meals the pen-raised fish get fed.

The meal and oil fed to promote growth in farmed salmon prove to be more contaminated with dioxins than any of the livestock feeds around. According to a study by the European Union, salmon raised in British Columbia pens have 10 times more PCBs than wild fish.

In just 15 years, between 1986 and 2001, salmon farming expanded from a mere 10 percent of the global salmon harvest to 58 percent. Those numbers help measure the decimation of the wild fish -- and the illusion of plenitude produced by international salmon farmers.

Perhaps most worrisome of all, the fish in normal farms produce enough poop to contaminate surrounding waters with as much raw sewage as a town of 65,000 people. Most consumers wouldn't enjoy discovering that their food had been marinated in excrement. Such waste also ratchets up the incidence of disease, according to National Geographic, in much the same way that factory animal farms have generated mad cows.

Please vote at the ballot box and at restaurants and grocery stores for food-production practices that sustain the health of humans and wild species alike.

Paul Lindholdt lives in Spokane.

Publication date: 08/05/04

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