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The secret of wild salmon

Posted: July 12, 2011 - 8:18pm

U.S. Rep. Don Young has been working overtime this year to protect our state fisheries. Back in February he sponsored legislation to prohibit salmon farming in federally managed waters. And last month he led the charge to keep “Frankenfish,” the genetically modified salmon, off the consumer market. Was it special interest politics that energized Young’s rare burst of regulatory affection? Or is there something deeper in his commitment to preserving Alaska’s wild salmon?

It’s easy to label any legislator a hypocrite for taking action that contradicts their staunchly held political philosophies. Forbes science writer Steven Salzberg snapped up that bait when Young blocked the FDA’s approval of genetically modified salmon. After leveling the accusation that Young gave in to lobbying pressure from Alaska’s fishing industry, he wrote “I can’t resist pointing out that Republicans such as Alaska’s Rep. Young claim to hate regulation, and favor the free market — except when they don’t.”

Salzberg goes on to argue that the genetically modified fish will make salmon farming operations more economical because they’d be ready for harvest 18 months sooner than their caged schooling mates. Less time in the holding pens means the industry could bring its product to the marketplace at lower costs. And that competitive edge makes the state’s seafood industry nervous because it could drive down the price of the wild fish caught in our waters.

What Salzberg is missing, though, is recognition that Alaska has been trying to protect its wild salmon runs for 50 years. Our Constitution requires that all fisheries be “utilized, developed, and maintained on the sustained yield principle, subject to preferences among beneficial uses.” Wild salmon is more than a tasty meal; it’s a way of life.

Obviously, long-term economic interests were a major consideration of the constitution convention delegates. But sustainability in Alaska includes subsistence uses. In 1960, more than 75 percent of Alaska’s population lived in small remote communities. That kind of isolation fostered a healthy dependence on local resources. And back then, even Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau were well beyond the everyday reach of market forces which fuel the U.S. economy.

There’s also an element of primordial satisfaction with bringing food home from the sea. Anyone who has fed their family a fresh caught salmon dinner can appreciate the deeper meaning it gives to the traditional blessings before a meal. Savoring the flavor goes beyond the taste buds and feeds the soul.

Today, people still enjoy sharing some of their catch with friends and neighbors. The same holds true for many who hunt for deer or forage the forest for wild berries. What I’m suggesting is many Alaskans are more appreciative of a spiritual reliance on the natural world than the benefits espoused by economic angling.

Food on supermarket shelves may come at bargain prices, but it’s shipped hundreds of miles from sterilized factory environments where it’s processed to monotonous ends with countless chemical additives. And almost all the beef and chicken sold today was raised on an unnatural diet of corn and grain spiced with artificial hormones. This may well be the future for salmon farming.

Critics like Salzberg can’t understand the non-monetary value of harvesting wild food. Speaking from the self proclaimed “Home Page for the World’s Business Leaders,” he only brings to the table a business taste for salmon. Besides, he’s got a personal bias leaking from his career in genetic sciences.

Unfortunately, the Forbes-styled affection for America’s economic system has enormous influence across the country. For most people, low price trumps the sacred nature of real food. That explains how McDonald’s can avoid boasting about the taste of the processed foods for sale in their dollar menu and extra value meals. And it means more people will buy farmed salmon as long as it’s less expensive than Alaska’s wild caught delicacy.

“Alaskan wild fish are one of our state’s many natural treasures” says Rep. Young “and the seafood industry is our biggest private employer”. Yes, he’s got his eye on the financial health of the state’s fishing fleet. But he spoke first to the real secret he’s defending, which is a quality of life that comes from living closer to the source of our daily sustenance.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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