Dan Murphy: Skip The Salmon; Order The Beef

Orcas are threatened by the decline in salmon populations. ( . )

It’s way past time for nutritionists and activists alike to end the ‘eat seafood, not red meat’ mantra. Why? Because salmon are seriously endangered, as are other species dependent on them.

I’ve long been on record as advocating that everyone from well-meaning dieticians (who know WAY more than we do about the “proper” foods to eat) to meat-avoiding pescatarians to outright veganistas to cease and desist with the seafood-over-red-meat propaganda.

Of course, such arguments always begin — and usually end — with the tale of the tape, nutritionally speaking, in comparing seafood (always the pricier fish, such as salmon or halibut) to beef or pork.

Why, salmon has an abundance of vital omega-3 fatty acid (although grassfed beef and pork from pigs raised with “enhanced feed” both contain appreciable amounts of heart-healthy omega-3), these often well-meaning dietary authorities tell us. That’s why seafood is so much healthier for people!

While not inaccurate, do you know who especially benefits from eating seafood such as salmon? Orcas. Killer whales. That’s who.

And those magnificent predators are dying off in record numbers, to the point that marine biologists are officially worried that the so-called “Southern Resident” orca population that inhabits the seas and bays along the Northwest coasts of Oregon and Washington may be headed toward outright extinction sooner, rather than later.

A simple — edible — solution

Part of the problem is that back in the 1960s and ’70s, hundreds of orcas were forcibly captured in nets and towed to marine entertainment sites, such as Sea World, to be kept in captivity until they died — again, sooner, rather than later in most cases.

The capture of so many young males and breeding-age females decimated the existing pods, severely reducing their normal reproductive capacity.

But the much larger problem is the steep and so far irreversible decline in stocks of salmon that orcas prefer as their primary food source, especially in the region from Northern California to southern British Columbia. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is reporting that the last two years have seen the lowest counts of juvenile salmon in the Columbia River since surveys began in 1998.

Meanwhile, out on the high seas off the West Coast this year, NOAA researchers reported that they — literally — came up empty trying to capture mature salmon for research purposes.

Nothing. None. Nada.

There simply are so few salmon left as a result of habitat loss, dam construction and pollution runoff in rivers and streams that scientists can’t even find a few samples and predatory species, such as orcas, are dying of starvation.

The primary solution attempted so far has been to ramp up the production of hatchery salmon, released into rivers and estuaries as fingerlings, hopefully to return two years later as mature fish making their way upstream into Northwest rivers to spawn the next generation of fish.

As marine scientists Misty MacDuffee and Nick Gayeski stated in a recent commentary, “In British Columbia and Washington state, fishery managers, provincial and state legislators, the sports fishing lobby and even the whale watching industry have advocated for increased production of hatchery chinook salmon to ‘save’ the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales.”

Sustainable salmon? No such thing

But guess what? No matter how many hatchery fish are produced — and most of them aren’t well-adapted to the ocean environment and quickly die after being released — it won’t restore the salmon runs essential to their own and to the orcas’ survival.

The reasons are complex, but in a nutshell, current laws, such as the Pacific Salmon Treaty governing management of chinook salmon, provide that the more salmon estimated to be present in ocean areas where commercial fisheries operate, the higher the catch limits are set. In other words, if more salmon somehow survive, the commercial and sport-fishing industries will be allowed to catch the “surplus.”

And if you’re one of those “enlightened” consumers who loves to tout his or her insistence that the only purchase “wild” salmon from “sustainable” fisheries, sorry, but you’re part of the problem.

“There is growing evidence that hatcheries are part of the reason chinook have failed to recover,” MacDuffee and Gayeski wrote. “Hatchery rearing domesticates salmon, selecting for genes suited to the hatchery environment but that are maladaptive in the wild [where] … hatchery fish interbreed with wild fish, reducing the fitness and genetic diversity of wild salmon. Reliance on this unsuccessful industrial tool to address the complex ecological issues facing whales and wild chinook is destined to fail both species.”

The bottom line is this: despite its culinary appeal, despite its nutritional value, despite its promotion by smarter-than-you nutritionists, it’s time to stop buying, stop ordering and stop eating salmon.

Beef and pork are sustainable, cattle and pigs aren’t endangered, and oh yeah: choosing red meat can help save the whales.

Are you listening, Greenpeace?

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.

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