For the next few months, Canadian Literary Fare is heading to our oceans and waterways to sample stories of Fish and Seafood.
As we cast off to explore this new theme, Canadian food historian Dorothy Duncan provides some initial reflections. In “Not Just on Fridays” from the proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, Duncan notes that “for over 11,000 years before European contact, the First Nations” of what is now known as Canada harvested a diverse range of fish and marine life. (116) But over the past 500 plus years since John Cabot witnessed the abundance of fish off the Grand Banks of Canada’s east coast (apparently European sailors simply lowered baskets into the water to secure their catch), much has changed. (116) Overfishing, pollution, and climate change have had drastic impacts on fish stocks. What many Canadians once “considered a rich renewable resource” is no longer so. (Duncan 118)
Duncan’s warning holds true today, especially for Pacific coast salmon. On the David Suzuki Foundation website, an article from September 2016 reports that “This year, B.C.’s sockeye salmon run was the lowest in recorded history. Commercial and First Nations fisheries on the world’s biggest sockeye run on B.C.’s longest river, the Fraser, closed. Fewer than 900,000 sockeye out of a projected 2.2 million returned to the Fraser to spawn. Areas once teeming with salmon are all but empty.” (“Wild Pacific Salmon Face”)
Reflecting on these silent B.C. rivers this fall, I was reminded of Jane Munro’s book of poetry Point No Point (which I recently reviewed when concluding our breakfast series).
The poem “Fishboat Bay” reminisces on a night of fishing (long ago), where almost 30 seiners gathered in the “lee of Point No Point” off the coast of Vancouver Island to catch salmon as the fish migrated from the ocean up inland streams and rivers to spawn in the freshwater from which they hatched. (53)
The poem marvels at the salmon’s miraculous senses – “tasting their way home” through the water. But then the speaker observes, “They haven’t come again.” (53)
The reference is initially unclear: does the speaker mean the 30 fishing boats or the salmon? We soon realize that “they” refers to both, as the poem unravels the interconnectedness of human and salmon ecologies. David Suzuki informs us that salmon can swim up to 3000 kilometres to spawn. In Jane Munro’s poem, the speaker’s fisherman father similarly senses his way back to his childhood home through faint memories of a cool marble table, a sister tying his shoelaces, and “a tomato sandwich on fresh brown bread.” (53)
Life cycles, home-waters, and a taste of renewal — let’s hope that next fall is different for both the salmon and us.
Duncan, Dorothy. “Not Just on Fridays.” Fish: Food from the Waters: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1997. Edited by Harlan Walker. Devon, England: Prospect Books, 1998. 116-119.
Munro, Jane. “Fishboat Bay.” Point No Point. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2006. 53.
Suzuki, David, and Theresa Beer.“Wild Pacific Salmon Face an Upstream Battle for Survival.” David Suzuki Foundation. 22 Sept. 2016.
Text and Photo Credits (except where noted): Shelley Boyd