Flotsam & Jetsam | Fishing the Atlantics

— a semi-regular humor column by Maurice Austin —

Fishing the Atlantics was fun while it lasted, that is we seemed to have them dialed in somewhat, and bloodied up the boat pretty well a couple days’ running, until the ready biters seemed thinned out, and then it was pretty frustrating, as they’d jump two feet from the boat, and here I am with a 9-foot rod. I can’t cast that short!

And they fought pretty well, too, jumped like steelhead, some of ‘em, even though you’d have to sometimes horse them to get them to come to the surface, and maybe stomp and yell so that they’d pop up and shake vigorously and with any luck not send your 3/0 barbless hook sailing back toward your polarized eyewear.

One scaled out at a whopping 16 pounds and looked like a football that had been stuffed with the entire defensive line; another might’ve scaled about 1.5 pounds and its filets are so thin I might have to cook it up on the BBQ cover, rather than on the grill.

Sure, they tend to go on and off the bite, but those in the know might take a page from the old men who would clandestinely pack a bag of rice out to the trout lake on opening day, knowing that their quarry could care less about spinner or spoon or fly than they do about manna from above-water heaven, which sifts slowly down the water column, like fish feed in a aquarium or September ash on a Seattleite’s SUV.

But of course, the news and grapevine speculation regarding Cooke’s net-pen failure and release of thousands of Atlantic Salmon caused some questioning—particularly regarding the safety of eating such a thing as a fish that has been raised for…well…eating. Some parties, who have perhaps cornered the market in providing listed endangered species to restaurants and casinos, seeing their business model might stand to benefit from casting aspersions on the net-pen industry, messaged accordingly: Look out! Not safe! Eat those and sea lice will eat your eyeballs and your adipose will fall off!

Not that net-pens are the most sustainable model for fisheries in Washington State, of course. But given that the fly-only, single-barbless hook, no-attached-weight, catch-and-release fishery on the North Fork Stillaguamish was cut from six months to two months this year in order to provide certain parties netting rights, one has to be skeptical of Chicken-Little messaging. Those Puget Sound Chinook, Coho, Chum and even Pinks pack a lot more mercury and dioxins than your run-of-the-net-pen Atlantic Salmon. (And as to Sockeye, well, dump a few thermometers’ worth on ‘em, I don’t care, that stuff is worth it.)

This particular event is a symptom of diminishing concern for local communities,  

One puzzling factoid repeated in shocked—shocked, I tell you!—tones by NPR correspondents and their ilk is that Cooke’s Cypress facility had been approved by state regulators to raise a full-capacity crop of some 3 million pounds, which is shocking! All that weight in dilapidated, end-of-serviceable-lifespan pens! Oh, the irresponsibility! Where oh where is the regulatory agency when you need it?

When you take a knife, insert it into the vent, and run it upwards along the belly of a fish, you’ll likely notice this little balloon-like structure there, full of air, though not as hot as some pundits. The swim bladder allows a fish to maintain neutral buoyancy in water, meaning its effective weight impact on the net-pen structure is oh let’s think here…um…zero. Nada. Zilch. Not to diminish Cooke’s oversight, or the state’s oversight, but arguments regarding the facility’s crop yield should have less to do with pounds of product than with engineering of infrastructure—with regulation. Same failure would’ve occurred if there were no fish present at all.

But still—let’s admit it—we are in free-fall, regulation-wise. This particular event is a symptom of diminishing concern for local communities, and likely a predictable result of free-market deregulatory capitalism. Likewise, it is disingenuous to posit that business models based on netting endangered species is immune to the same collapses.

Years ago, when fishing through certain portions of the North Fork Stillaguamish, anglers would come around a bend and into soft water where the rotting Chum were piled knee-high, and the stench so bad that it would linger despite shampooing one’s nose hairs. Steelhead often lurked downstream, gorging on fleshy bits. That the runs of Chum have disappeared in this system is not because fly-fishing anglers have scooped them all up off their redds and packed them home. No—nets, and an industry that turns “Keta” into pet food has largely been to blame. Er—to profit. Perspective is everything. Don’t those workers at that processing plant in Bellingham deserve a decent living?

Of course, I must issue a disclaimer that this by no means intends to cast aspersions on all in-river netting, and hope you, dear reader, will point out those river systems in Washington State that are being netted sustainably. Must be a couple out there. Might.

A resource-extraction business model that extracts its resource into extinction is in no way sustainable. The messaging that “Atlantics don’t belong here” might seem a valid argument on its face, but plenty of anglers would retort that nylon gill nets stretched bank-to-bank in the Nooksack and the Stillaguamish don’t either.

But truly, the question of whether Atlantics belong here is part of the point, part of the problem. Do cattle, after all? Aren’t feedlots and chicken factories much the same sort of endeavor, just out of sight, out of mind, not in our back yard? And by extension, you there with the white skin of European ancestry, on what grounds might you cast aspersions on an immigrant population, finny or otherwise, hmm?

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