Book Review: Salmon: A Fish, the Earth and the History of Their Common Fate

Patagonia Salmon Book

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” This statement from John Muir is among the most quoted from the naturalist. But it is quoted so often for good reason — within ecosystems, all aspects of nature are found to be connected, vulnerable, and easily disrupted when even seemingly small changes are made.

Those who know me are aware that I teach a few courses in Ecological Justice every year. And every year my students predictably ask why I spend so much time talking about salmon. There seems to be a suspicion that my course is overly influenced by my interest in angling. But it isn’t that. Salmon get so much attention in the course because they reveal much more about the magnificence of nature, the health of ecosystems, the negative impact of human behavior in relatively short amounts of time, and they are a harbinger of what’s to come for all of nature.

Upon receiving Mark Kurlansky’s new book Salmon: A Fish, the Earth and the History of Their Common Fate, I expected a predictable structure of the content. An extensive biological breakdown might be followed by a distribution of the species, before a look at how anglers have targeted the fish historically, and then a short closing chapter about current threats to the species. And I expected the nearly 450-page hard cover book to be filled with photos that serve as a sort of tribute to salmon and inspire a deeper appreciation for the fish. I was wrong.

Salmon Book

While my hopes and exceptions about Mark Kurlansky’s book Salmon were not met, my disappointment was also met with appreciation. Kurlansky clearly had no interest in writing such a book. And just like I need to stop seeing every salmon in a river as a sign of hope, Kurlansky clearly sees that the conversation about salmon should now focus on their fate rather than unrealistic dreams about returning to a world that once was. (That is, if our actions do not change.)

Upon reflection, the initial disappointment in the book was the result of a selfish fantasy. I wanted to see salmon as they once were rather than what has become of these fish and the waters they inhabit. But like with many ecological issues, it just feels better to ignore the truth. And by doing so, we do a disservice to the issues, species, and places we care about.

In Salmon: A Fish, the Earth and the History of Their Common Fate, Mark Kurlansky offers a comprehensive look at salmon and what has become of the fish and what’s ahead for them. In Salmon, Kurlansky offers an impressively thorough history of salmon and their relationship with people and how we have ultimately destroyed the fish. Kurlansky breaks down the many ways we have failed these fish and the impact of each of our actions from overfishing to dams to hatcheries. And while Kurlansky’s writing leaves no question about his mastery as an academic, he makes the book readable and digestible to all readers.

A scholar once told me to never write for the other scholars — if you have an important message, write for the masses. In Salmon, Kurlansky writes a book that anyone can read because it is a book that everyone ought to read. Despite worldwide mass consumption of salmon, they are a fish that most people know very little about. And just like with the students in my class, an understanding of the decline of salmon shows how rapidly we have destroyed not only a fish but rivers, coastal ecosystems, and all that are connected as well.

Salmon should be read by all anglers. While this book certainly deserves a broader audience, salmon cannot afford to have anglers unaware of how we got here and what’s ahead. This is a time for all anglers to be activists in order to keep what we love, and it is essential that we know our history and how to better serve these fish and their ecosystems. Any angler reading Salmon will acquire that essential knowledge and be an informed about what’s needed to protect and ultimately save these fish.

To learn more about Salmon: A Fish, the Earth and the History of Their Common Fate, please click here.

— Tim Harden


Disclosure: This publisher is in a professional relationship with the Venturing Angler. Though potentially benefiting from this relationship, we do not post what we do not believe to be true. To read more, click here.