As he did with cod in 1997, salt in 2002, and milk in 2018, best-selling author Mark Kurlansky details in his latest book, “Salmon: A Fish, the Earth and the History of Their Common Fate,” how a single ingredient can make its mark across time, place, culture and economy.

Exhaustive as this book is, Kurlansky researched as far back as the ice age, it also makes a blunt prediction: If what’s left of the world’s wild salmon stocks are allowed to die off, there is little hope for the planet’s overall survival.

“I didn’t write this book to hold up the salmon as a magnificent animal,” Kurlansky said to a crowd of almost 40 fans at Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick earlier this month. That said, he does spend chapters detailing its beauty at each phase of its salt and freshwater life cycle. He spends pages marveling at the athleticism that allows some salmon to jump 15 feet in the air. And he describes several times how the fish’s innate determination to get upstream to spawn, and then die, is both poetic and tragic.

Cover courtesy of Mark Kurlansky

But the book’s big lesson is this: “If the tenacious salmon can’t survive industrial waterway pollution, bad agricultural practices, widespread pesticide use, blocked waterways, massive deforestation, urban sprawl and climate change, climate change, climate change,” he said, neither will we.

“What needs to be done to save the remaining wild salmon is the same list of things that needs to be done to save the earth,” Kurlansky said.

The book starts on a high note, with an anecdote about a grizzled Bristol Bay, Alaska-based salmon fishermen professing his to be the greatest fishery in the world at this moment in time. In 2017, when Kurlansky went fishing with Curtis Olson, a record 56.6 million sockeye salmon ran from the Pacific Ocean into the bay and then up into their rivers of their birth to spawn. In 2018, the run was even bigger: 62.3 million salmon.

The salmon fisheries of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska are indeed managed well to sustain stocks, Kurlansky says. But overfishing has never been the central problem for salmon – industrial economic development has – and Kurlansky unabashedly admits his perplexity that Americans have failed to learn the well-documented lessons of history about the salmon’s demise elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere.

In the book, Kurlansky praises indigenous peoples in North America and Asia, who over centuries never over-fished the salmon and never polluted its habitat. But he taps sources ranging from Celtic legends to colonial cookbooks to trace repeated human mismanagement of salmon in places as disparate as the Rhine in Germany and the Penobscot in Maine.

Historians estimate that in the 18th century as many as 500,000 fish swam up Maine rivers annually to spawn. Maine’s paper and lumber industries put an end to that. As a fast way to illustrate the salmons’ demise, Kurlansky delves into the fish’s appearance on White House menus over time. John and Abigail Adams loved the fish, and often served it at the newly built White House. In 1912, fisherman Karl Anderson sent one of that year’s first salmon to run up the Penobscot River to President William Howard Taft, starting an annual springtime tradition. (Ironic, Kurlanksy writes, given that Taft’s eager promotion of the construction of large hydroelectric dams on the Penobscot helped destroy Maine’s salmon runs.) By 1947, commercial salmon fishing in Maine had ceased, so President Harry Truman’s salmon came from a recreational fisherman. In 1954, Maine’s returning salmon population was so meager, Dwight Eisenhower had to wait a full two months into the season for his specimen. With that, the White House tradition came to an end.

Kurlansky recognizes modern attempts to repair the damage by building hatcheries and reintroducing salmon here. “But if you don’t fix the environmental conditions that killed off the wild salmon in the first place,” he said, “these replacement fish aren’t going to be any better equipped to survive.”

The right fix, says Kurlanksy, lies in rethinking the notion that economic development trumps all things environmental.

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester, and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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Thea’s Salmon Chowder Comes East

Thea Thomas is a commercial fisherwoman who operates a one-person boat in the Gulf of Alaska, netting Copper River king and sockeye salmon. I adapted the recipe she supplied to Mark Kurlansky for his new book “Salmon: A Fish, the Earth and the History of Their Common Fate.”

1/2 cup chopped smoky bacon
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped fennel
1 cup fish stock or clam juice
2 cups diced red potatoes
4 cups whole milk
8 ounces fresh salmon, cut into bite-sized pieces
4 ounces hot smoked salmon, torn into bite-sized pieces
1/4 cup chopped parsley and/or fennel fronds
Salt and pepper

In a large pot, fry the bacon over medium heat until crisp. Remove the bacon from the pot and set it to drain on a paper bag. Reserve.

Add the onion and fennel to the rendered bacon fat in the pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are translucent, 3-4 minutes. Add the stock and potatoes, cover the pot and cook until potatoes are fork tender, 7-8 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, and add the milk. As the milk begins to simmer, add both fresh and smoked salmon, and cook gently until the fresh salmon is cooked through, 3-4 minutes. Stir in the chopped herbs, season with salt and pepper and serve hot, garnished with reserved crispy bacon.


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