Some thoughts on –
SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN
A few years back, I went to see the movie “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.” I had to overcome my distaste for the preposterous idea implicit in the title, that an oil rich Sheik can bring salmon to a place where they can’t survive without copious human engineering and the expenditure of unthinkable amounts of money… but my girlfriend wanted to go to a movie, so given my choices, a title with the word salmon in it seemed better than the rest.
The movie, despite my misgivings, turned out to be entertaining. The plot, roughly, is as follows: An office bound, government bureaucrat salmon biologist, played by Ewan McGregor, is enlisted against all of his principles by Emily Blunt to help a Sheik achieve his goal of bringing Atlantic salmon, and the coldwater they depend on, to the desert of the Arabian Peninsular. The Sheik also happens to own a castle on a salmon river in Scotland, where in billowing traditional Arab attire, he plies the river for wild salmon with a two handed Spey rod. Initially, McGregor’s character refuses to cooperate, but two events force him to take on the Sheik’s project. The British government decides that it needs some ‘positive press’ from the Middle East, whereupon the hapless biologist is forced to comply with the seemingly ridiculous plan. And then, while salmon fishing with the Sheik in Scotland (the biologist happens to be an avid salmon fisherman) McGregor’s character comes to respect the Sheik’s genuine love and admiration of salmon.
While “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” ultimately degenerates into a shmaltzy love story, it does seem to me that the movie’s original premise – the lengths to which people will go to fish for Atlantic salmon – hit on some very timely matters related to our salmon and trout fisheries here in New England.
Through the Southeastern Massachusetts Chapter of Trout Unlimited’s newsletter, former Chapter President, Tom Magee, has introduced readers to passages from an obscure 1833 publication, authored by Dr. Jerome V. C. Smith, titled “A History of the Fishes of Massachusetts”. Tom’s reason for doing this is to give chapter members a view of the native brook trout and salmon fishery that once abounded in the coastal watersheds of Massachusetts and Maine. Looking at our rivers and streams today, it is hard to imagine that this wealth of brook trout and salmon could have existed.
Today, the native trout and salmon of our coastal streams have been nearly extirpated by clear cutting, dams, agriculture, and more recently by roads, houses, parking lots and groundwater withdrawals.
For many years now while working as a TU volunteer to restore Red Brook, a sea run brook trout stream, I’ve pondered why this destruction of our streams and our trout and salmon was, and is allowed to happen.
Oddly enough, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”, by providing a view of the British esteem of their fisheries as a source of wealth – controlled by the wealthy – provides some insights into why the outcome for trout and salmon has been so radically different here in New England.
Tragedy of the Commons
One key insight involves the survival of sea-run brook trout at Red Brook. Red Brook was owned by Theodore Lyman III, the scion of a wealthy Boston family. Theodore Lyman’s wealth enabled him to buy much of Red Brook in the late 1800’s, and eventually try and duplicate there, on a small scale, the Scottish salmon fishing estates that he had become familiar with during his travels in Britain. Thus, Red Brook was saved from becoming a cranberry bog ditch – the fate of so many of the other trout streams in the region.
During my first years at Red Brook, a wide rift between my fishing experience and that of the Lyman family became apparent when Hal Lyman (Theodore Lyman’s grandson) told me that he and his brother were in the habit of making annual trips to Scotland to fish for salmon. When Hal innocently asked if I’d ever been to the salmon rivers of Scotland, out of politeness I had to choke back a laugh (actually a guffaw). Fishing in Scotland is now, and will be forever beyond my means. While I’m grateful to the Lyman family for saving Red Brook, I’ve found myself asking why the rest of the Yankee Upper Crust didn’t preserve our rivers the way British Nobility protected the rivers of Scotland and England. It would have saved the famously thrifty Yankee blue bloods the expense of travelling to Scotland to fish.
Then again, when fishing is involved expense is a dirty word, even for Yankee blue bloods.
As I was to discover, the Lymans were not alone on the spate rivers of Scotland, many of their friends and relatives had been making the jaunt for generations. Why had they not, early on, stepped forward to save the salmon and trout of their own country instead of returning to the auld sod to pursue the Fish of Kings? (It should be noted here that Hal Lyman was an active leader in the Atlantic Salmon Federation and other conservation groups, and that Theodore Lyman III actually won a Supreme Court decision that forced the Holyoke Company to put a fish ladder on their dam on the Connecticut River). It may be that the answer involves ownership of the fish, combined with an extractionist view of the New World passed on as the legacy of the colonial, British mercantile system.
In Britain, the salmon and trout belong to the owners of the land abutting the rivers. If you want to fish, you pay to become a member of a fishing club with a lease of beats along a stream, or you pay for a beat as an individual, or you buy or inherit the land along the stream. Trout and salmon fishing is profitable and the rivers are prized accordingly.
In contrast, where I live in Massachusetts the fish are owned by the citizenry and managed by the state. The obvious shortcoming of this arrangement has been that, because the fish were general property, the landowners found it difficult to profit off of them, choosing instead the expedience of using water for power. And for centuries the owners of river-side land were able to do as they pleased, including damming rivers and streams to generate power and operate machinery for profit. If fish were lost, it was just part of doing business in the New World, a World that – in the cultural mind set of the people from Britain arriving and settling in New England – existed entirely for the taking. As a result, we now have more than 3000 dams in Massachusetts alone, with most of them standing as derelict eyesores serving no purpose… other than to block fish passage and needlessly warm the water by impounding the streams.
This sorry state of affairs could be placed under the label of a tragedy of the commons; however, over time laws have been passed that make it difficult to dam a stream in a fashion that harms migrating fish. Other laws, dam safety laws in particular, make dam owners liable for the safety of their dams and any property damage or loss of life resulting from dam failure. The result is that many dam owners would be happy to receive help with removing their dams. Some owners, in frustration, have pulled the flashboards from their dams and walked away.
And then there is the, seeming, irony that recreational angling now generates $669, 574,000 a year and thousands of jobs in the state of Massachusetts. One would naturally assume that the opportunity to enhance this economic engine should be justification enough for removing many of the relic dams from coastal watersheds.
And when we add up the many liabilities of dam ownership, and the obvious benefits coming from restored flows and connectivity, one would think that dam removal should be proceeding along at a rapid clip, but it isn’t. Our rivers and streams are so utterly dammed that people have lived their entire lives looking at our waterways as a series of ponds. Unable to imagine a free flowing river or stream with its full assortment of fluvial fish and other ecosystem deliverables, people choose instead to protect what they’ve always known. They defend their sediment filled ponds, all the while expecting the dam’s owner or the tax payers to maintain the dam. They may not be able to swim in it, and mosquitoes from its stagnant waters may give them West Nile, and the stench of mid summer fish kills may force them to keep their windows closed, but it’s their pond. It is all they’ve ever known, and they love it.
Where are the people who built those dams today? They’ve spent the last century, or more, resting under an old slate headstone in the local cemetery. And yet, their dams persist. These are the dams that Jerome Smith complained of in “A History of the Fishes of Massachusetts”. These are the dams that Thoreau was writing of in “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” when he wrote the words “If fish could cry.” Yet, even the most obvious candidates for removal are often dams that some people will want to save because of their historic significance, or because the river will run dry if the dam is removed. It’s hard to be patient under these circumstances, and getting harder as time passes.
My friend and Trout Unlimited colleague, Peter Schilling, has a slide show on salmon fishing that kept coming to mind while we were watching “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”. Peter has slides covering New England’s, once great, salmon rivers – rivers that were great until dams ended the runs.
There is certainly far more hope of restoring wild trout and salmon to our rivers and streams than there is of ever introducing salmon to the Yemen. It begins with educating people about the past and showing them what is possible in the future. Thankfully, progress is being made with dam removals on the West Coast, and a few dams have been removed from the Kennebec and the Penobscot rivers in Maine. In my home state of Massachusetts, the Mass. Division of Ecological Restoration is busy working to remove old dams and restore connectivity to some of the state’s smaller waterways.
But dam removal and the restoration of stream habitat for our native trout and salmon, remains a long way from becoming a government policy. And because we are lacking a clear policy that prioritizes reconnecting and restoring our rivers, funding and permitting remain as significant obstacles to restoring our watersheds and their fisheries.
The truth is that we are no longer “colonists” entitled to pilfer the riches of a New World. This has long been our world, the one that we depend on, and due to our abuse of its resources, it is aging quickly. Most of us will never be able to make a trip to Scotland (or Yemen for that matter) to fish for salmon. If future generations of New Englanders are ever going to have an opportunity to fish for Salmo salar, “the Fish of Kings”, we’re going to have to make it happen ourselves; although, it might not hurt to put an ad in the paper:
SHEIK WANTED! Sheik with disposable $50 million needed to invest in dam removal and trout and salmon habitat restoration. Only serious responses will be considered.