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When the Salmon Industry Intentionally Poisoned Native Stock

Thing About Skins: The continued campaign against Indigenous foods and our sacred salmon
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The Salmon Industry has intentionally poisoned Native stock.

Last week, a company named “Cooke Aquaculture” spilled approximately 160,000 foreign farmed fish from all the way across the continent into Washington’s Native fish populations. These alien fish have no natural enemies in Washington’s waters and thus have explored destructively, some swimming up to 150 miles away.

"Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”
Lieutenant Colonel Richard Irving Dodge

Initially, Cooke Aquaculture got downright Bonnie Tyler on us and blamed the recent eclipse (no, seriously) for their farmed fish getting out into the wild. They’ve since retracted that silliness, but stupid excuses notwithstanding, the damage has already been done.


Like most actions that harm Native people, this was not an accident. In fact, it reflects a larger trend. From Cooke’s own application for a permit from the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

The existing steel net pen structure has been in service for approximately 16 years in the marine environment and is due for complete replacement...The corrosion on the metal walkway grating and substructures is accelerating and some metal hinge joints show signs of excess wear. Repairing the rusted steel walkways and replacing fatigued metal components of the existing cage system structure in place is not cost effective or practical.

But, of course, it was business as usual--neither the company nor the State of Washington did anything to stop this company from polluting Native treaty rights and ways of life. Every single aspect of this tragedy is damaging for Native communities--for some, salmon is sacred, a staple that connects present day Native people to ancestors 20,000 years ago.

Every single time a foreign fish eats a Native salmon fingerling or egg, as is happening, it brings Native stocks of salmon closer to ultimate destruction. The notion that this damage was done by these Atlantic salmon, unnaturally brought and sustained in distant waters by white people for the purposes of capitalizing monetarily adds insult to that injury.

This is nutritional manifest destiny, a necessary component of genocide. When you kill a peoples’ food sources, that people changes and a way of life dies.

Elsie Albrite and Evan Chocknok Sr. focus on cutting sockeye salmon into thin strips that will eventually find their way into smokehouse.

Elsie Albrite and Evan Chocknok Sr. focus on cutting sockeye salmon into thin strips that will eventually find their way into smokehouse.

Aside from the cultural and historical significance, however, there are very practical reasons that farming salmon is a horrible idea. First, farmed salmon is a danger to the habitat. According to Kurt Beardslee, the director of the Wild Fish Conservancy Northwest, “Atlantic salmon bring with them pollution, virus and parasite amplification, and all that harms Pacific salmon and our waters.”

Moreover, farmed salmon have vaccines and the effects of those vaccines can be transferred to people who eat those salmon. In short, there is danger to both the environment and to the people who eat these unnatural salmon.

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Those are serious concerns. But to many Native people, those concerns are secondary to trying to kill ancestral food sources.

It harkens to when Lieutenant Colonel Richard Irving Dodge and the United States Army pushed for white hunters to kill as many buffalo as possible. Shooting parties took trains westward and shot from the train cars; in 1876 nearly 4 million buffalo were killed for fertilizer. Overall, white hunters killed over 60 million buffalo to destroy a way of life that had existed for tens of thousands of years.[text_ad]Eventually, as ancestral food sources diminished, those Natives on the Great Plains became more vulnerable to making deals and government intervention. An economy and a way of life was effectively destroyed.

There was no smoking gun. There was no “official” government policy that allowed that nutritional manifest destiny. There was simply a willingness to allow and make excuses for unfettered capitalism. There was just a willingness to make westward expansion the priority over Native peoples’ treaty rights and human right to remain.

Privileged people are the only folks who need a smoking gun. They oftentimes need irrefutable proof that someone has it more difficult than them because they they do not want to contend with the fact that their exalted position many times has nothing to do with their merit.

Oppressed people understand that smoking guns and “official” policies are oftentimes overrated; Jim Crow wasn’t an official policy, yet it kept black people as second-class citizens for one hundred years. Misogyny, homophobia and racism are not official policies within the United States either; however, so long as no one affirmatively stands up against them, they will always harm the more vulnerable group.

It would be difficult to show that Cooke Aquaculture or the fishing industry or the State of Washington or the United States conspired to substantially harm the treaty fishing industry. It would be difficult to prove that the fishing industry wanted to introduce an inferior product, like a drug dealer, and get folks use to this unnatural fish at a much lower premium. It would be damn near impossible to conclusively illustrate that this was done to get rid of a way of life. There is no smoking gun.

But that’s what happened. And we know because it’s happened before.

Gyasi Ross, "Thing About Skins," Editor at Large

Gyasi Ross, "Thing About Skins," Editor at Large

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large

Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories

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