Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Why should Mainers care about a fishery that is thousands of miles away?
“If we’re going to hope for support for our efforts in the northeast to conserve and rebuild and renew and revitalize our fisheries and our fishing communities, then I also think we have to be actively involved in supporting fisheries and communities elsewhere,” says Sam Hayward of Fore Street, one of Portland’s best-known chefs.
Hayward will be at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, 350 Commercial St., on Jan. 30 for a free screening of “Red Gold,” a documentary about the people and fishing culture of Bristol Bay, Alaska. The film focuses on how the bay’s population of wild sockeye salmon is being threatened by the Pebble Mine, a copper, gold and molybdenum mine that’s being proposed for the headwaters of the bay, where the salmon spawn.
Bristol Bay produces more than 40 percent of the world’s wild sockeye salmon. The fishery provides 14,000 jobs and pumps nearly $500 million into the local economy.
Proponents of the Pebble Mine project say it would bring much-needed jobs and tax revenue to the Alaskan economy. Opponents say the Pebble Mine is too risky – an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen. Wild salmon are highly sensitive to pollution, and the project would create billions of tons of toxic waste that would be impounded by several earthen dams located in an area prone to earthquakes.
Hayward said if even one of the dams failed, “the damage that could be caused would be extremely difficult to remedy.”
“I don’t have to go into all the reasons I think the Pebble Mine is a bad idea,” Hayward said, “but I think they’ll make make arguments very strongly in the halls of power that this is economic development that will provide jobs and can be managed safely. And I think we have ample experience and evidence that there are too many unpredictables in exploitation of natural resources - think the Gulf of Mexico, think global warming - to believe that the Pebble Mine at the headwaters of the rivers that flow into Bristol Bay (could be operated safely). One small accident could destroy decades of intelligent management and conservation of the resource.”
Hayward will be preparing some wild Bristol Bay salmon appetizers for the 7 p.m. screening. He’ll also participate in a panel discussion with Ben Martin of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and Katherine Carscallen, who fishes commercially in Dillingham, AK.
Hayward said he was asked to help bring awareness of the sockeye salmon issue to New Englanders by the conservation group Trout Unlimited. The project appealed to him on a number of levels – Hayward is known nationally for his passionate support of sustainable fishing and responsible use of seafood resources – but the Bristol Bay debate has also given him a sense of deja vu when it comes to the topic of saving wild salmon.
“Maine has lost any possibility of a commerical wild Atlantic salmon fishery for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Even if current (conservation) efforts prevail, it will be decades before we see wild salmon populations return to levels that would permit any kind of a fishery at all, which is a heartbreaker. The Gulf of Maine Atlantic salmon, back when I was just beginning cooking, was one of the finest fish in the world.”
So fine that Hayward still remembers the last wild Atlantic salmon he cooked more than three decades ago, when the fish were still legal and he was still cooking at 22 Lincoln, his restaurant in Brunswick. It was, he says, an “unbelievable” 37-pound fish that had been caught in the Greenland straits.
“I actually feel terrible about it in hindsight because it was one of the most magnificent fish I’ve ever seen,” Hayward said. “I guess I didn’t realize how precarious that fish stock was that went up for spawning in the Greenland straits every year. When they discovvered that that stock was there, there was a gold rush of eastern fishing boats, and within one season they pretty much decimated that stock.
“I’ve felt guilty about that ever since,” he added, “but I’ve never forgotten the almost transcendant quality of that fish when I was preparing it in my kitchen. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
Today, the vast majority of fish that end up on dinner plates at Fore Street are from Maine and New England, but the restaurant does bring in wild salmon from Alaska or the Pacific Northwest – only from fisheries that are well managed.
Hayward does not want to see Alaska’s wild sockeye salmon go the way of the wild Atlantic salmon. Bristol Bay is “pristine and beautiful and productive,” he said, and it would be “catastrophic” if the fishery were to be ruined.
“That’s what’s at stake,” he said. “It’s that serious.”
Meredith Goad has harvested oysters on the Chesapeake Bay, eaten reindeer in Finland and sipped hot chai in the Himalayas. She writes the weekly Soup to Nuts column and enjoys a good cocktail.