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Book Reviews

The Nature of Borders. Salmon, Boundaries, and Bandits on the Salish Sea, Lissa K. Wadewitz, University of Washington Press and UBC Press, 2012. 271 p.

  • Marie Leconte

Corps de l’article

Who could possibly imagine the fishing legacy of the West Coast salmon from simply eating unsaumon au beurre blanc? The Pacific salmon in its various genetic declinations is the fish at the heart of all the controversy in Wadewitz’s well-documented book. Although completely free of any culinary references, except to mention that North West Natives’ “ability to preserve the catch was a highly valued skill” (19), Wadewitz’s detailed history of the borders that have shaped the West Coast salmon fishing industry compelled me to reflect on the implication of my own consumption. I needed to know how this fish ended up in my plate.

While making their way toward and up the Fraser River to spawn, Pacific salmon obviously do not follow the man-made borders that cut across the complicated coastal waters, known as the Salish Sea, that lie between the province of British Columbia and Washington State. These salmon migration runs, which had been fished by aboriginal peoples for over fifteen hundred years (13), became increasingly criss-crossed with additional human intervention starting in the late 1700s, when white settlers from the fur trade started taking over Native land in Western Canada. Wadewitz’s book carefully traces the emergence and history of three legendary conflicting forces of this industry: natural boundaries, national frontiers, and capitalistic venture. Used initially as native tribal delimitations, these salmon runs eventually became subordinate to the Canada-U.S. border as well as thoroughly exploited by a fishing industry looking to make money at all cost, in spite of this border. Fishermen, pirates, trap owners, cannery bosses, immigrants from all over the world, Native peoples, and government officials all participated in a fishing industry that has almost decimated the Pacific salmon population. The Nature of Borders is about quotas, season dates, and laws from both sides of the border. It is also about those who created, policed, chose to abide by or ignore these regulations. In particular, Chapter 5, entitled “Pirates of the Salish Sea”, gives the reader a refreshing, and sometimes even comical look at how those on the lowest rung in the financial ladder, fishermen, learned to outsmart rich cannery and fish trap owners, government officials, and the law to earn a living in the late 19th and early 20th century. The sheer size of the nautical borders to be patrolled, combined with the court-proven argument at the turn of the century that “as fish are of a roving nature[,] their being in the traps did not constitute possession” (142), left fishermen immune from the law for a long time.

Early on, Wadewitz introduces us to an aboriginal awareness of the salmon – an awareness reflected in spiritual beliefs (29), and in an altogether more eco–responsible and sustainable approach to fishing, where sharing and divvying the resource with the community and other tribes, was a priority (27). In later chapters, Wadewitz sketches out an industry driven by the economic value of this noble fish and supported by an ever-evolving set of exploitative tools. From fishing boats to manned fish traps to motorized boat engines, the fishing industry went further out to sea to catch more and more salmon. Sadly, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 1900s that both the industry and governmental bodies realized that the salmon stock had been seriously depleted.

Although another topic in itself, salmon harvesting in the 20th century is only touched upon lightly in the last chapter, an activity I would definitely have liked Wadewitz to explore further. West Coast farmed salmon are actually Atlantic salmon raised in netted pens (172). A precarious practice, “Fish farms […] represent a new large-scale marine experiment” whose impact has not yet been assessed on the Pacific salmon habitat. With the decline of wild West Coast salmon around the turn of the century came the development of hatcheries, as they were thought to be a solution to the growing decline. But forcibly bringing salmon up river to spawn proved to be an unsuccessful approach to conservation. Wadewitz leaves the reader to wonder how the unsuccessful hatcheries of the first half of the twentieth century connect with the later appearance of Pacific salmon aquaculture.

The book concludes with the observation that the sustainable fishing practices adopted by Native peoples, prior to contact with European settlers, are perhaps the best way to save what is left of the Pacific salmon. But tagged onto this hopeful commentary, she adds that it remains to be seen whether an industry that has long regarded salmon as an inexhaustible resource is capable of carrying out and enforcing such salmon management practices.

This book so successfully meshed the historical and the scientific that it has garnered cross-disciplinary recognition. It was the 2013 recipient of the Western History Association’s Hal K. Rothman Award for best book in environmental history, and in the category of Naval and Maritime Science and Technology, it won the North American Society for Oceanic History’s John Lyman Book Award. This dual recognition underlines Wadewitz’s unique interdisciplinary approach to the analysis of geographical, cultural, and social border crossing in the West Coast salmon fishing industry.

As for me, now that I know how this fish ended up at my disposal, a visit to the grocery store turned out to be the last frontier in getting answers about that cellophane-wrapped salmon steak I wanted to buy for supper. Reference to the Salish Sea or wild salmon season dates rendered the attendant mute, making it startlingly clear that a chasm still exists between a Sockeye’s world and my dinner plate.

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