Our sea plane descended into one of the hundreds of remote lakes far from the reaches of human existence within Newfoundland and Labrador. Six youngsters, between the ages of thirty and forty-five, stepped out onto the plane’s floats. Next we made our way upriver by canoes to the private camp we’d call home for 7 days. It was early August. The tail end of the wild Atlantic Salmon’s run from the ocean to the spawning grounds where they were born. I’ve been fishing all my life, mostly for trout although I’ve done a fair amount of saltwater fishing as well. Pursuing Salmon however, was completely new for me. I arrived at camp with the desire to catch incredible fish, but with little understanding or appreciation for the life cycle of the fish we were after. That would quickly change along with my perspective on what’s happening to our planet.
There’s a common misconception that people who hunt and fish are little more than savages with little regard for the value of life. I’d argue the complete opposite however. With the exception of a very small portion of the general population who hunt because they get off on killing things, the vast and overwhelming majority of people who hunt actually have a much deeper appreciation for nature and the cycle of life. They become one with natural world and through their immersion in the outdoors, they see first hand the decline in animal populations based on the pressure of human sprawl.
The week prior to our arrival at camp had been said to be epic, with almost 200 fish hooked. That’s about as good as it can get. A result of being in the right place at the right time with the right set of skills and great guides. Of those successfully landed, maybe a handful were kept while the rest were successfully returned to spawn and hopefully return the following year. During the week we were there we hooked just under 30 fish and kept just a couple. For most fly fisherman, catch and release fishing is part of how we get to enjoy nature while still ensuring the preservation of the species we pursue. While the fishing was “slow” in relative terms, it was incredibly exciting for me. Some might think we caught fewer fish than the week before because we arrived at the end of the run. But while the time of year certainly made all the difference, there’s something much bigger happening.
There’s no commercial fishing in Newfoundland and Labrador and yet the wild salmon populations are in sharp decline, down an estimated 73% from their peaks. Rivers that were once full of wild salmon during the spawning runs today have not a single salmon returning. The fishing seasons are getting shorter, the salmon counts are lower and this means we may one day see a complete extinction of a species. Once a river no longer sees wild salmon being born, it never will. To put this into an even broader perspective, we’re talking about a fish that spends the first four years of its life in the river. It then turns downstream and makes its way out to sea, undergoing a complete physiological change. A year later, it returns back to the river, not just any river, the exact river and location where it was born, where it spawns to produce a new generation. And every year after that, it does the exact same thing, undergoing two physiological transformations as it makes its way to the ocean and then returns again to spawn. Their migration patterns are the same each year and they’re well published and documented. A simple Google search for wild Atlantic salmon migration will show you when and where they are once they leave the safety of the rivers.
There’s no protection once they reach international waters and this is where they’re being met with nets that extend for 50 miles. Ambushed. Netted. Slaughtered and sent to market. Millions of tons of wild fish removed from the system each year to feed the insatiable tastes of those who have no idea or no concern for how their consumption demands are impacting an entire species. I want to place the blame squarely on the commercial fisherman, but the truth is they’re just capitalizing on the economics of demand.
While I could write an entire book on Wild Atlantic Salmon or on the evil of commercial fishing, I actually think the blame falls squarely on us as consumers. Last year I chose to hunt deer for the first time. It brought me closer to what food means, what it means to take a life, the effort required to break it down from animal to food. It made my very aware of how my personal consumption habits impact a broader system. I’ve since cut down on my meat consumption by at least 90%, preferring to eat meat I’ve killed rather than buying meat that’s been slaughtered and made commercially available. My wife and I grow a lot of our own vegetables (she’s a vegetarian). I make maple syrup instead of buying sugar. We trade venison and vegetables with our neighbors for eggs. Essentially, we try to do our part to sustain ourselves through as many of our own efforts as we can and we both get great satisfaction from being modern-day hunters and gatherers.
And while we try to shop local, we also use Amazon for certain things. But each and every day, we search for ways to get closer to the things we consume. What I’ve realized, is the system will not change. It simply feeds the need. True sustainability starts and ends with each of us. And as with the salmon, a week can make all the difference. You don’t have to live in the woods in order to incorporate sustainability into your life or your business. You have to become conscious. You have to be willing to be educated. You have to want to do better. Above all though, you have to make inquiries as to how the things you consume impact the ecosystem of life.
I can’t wait to fly into camp again next year to pursue salmon. It’s not important to me whether I get there during the peak of the run or at the end of it. All I hope is that on the week I get there, I don’t arrive to discover that there are no more salmon because the rising demand has robbed the world of yet another of its greatest living creatures.
You see, a week makes all the difference.
What will you do this week to increase your contribution to sustainability? How will you shift from being caught within the cycle of mass consumption to being part of the solution towards global sustainability? Waiting a week to figure it out, could be too long.
By Adam Trisk