Monday, June 23, 2014

Why I eat steelhead

When I see steelhead on the menu, I order it. Always.

My May 2 steelhead burger in Portland.

It is a thing in Cascadia that people refuse to eat steelhead. Not because they don't like fish. They love fish. Specifically, they love steelhead.

They fish for steelhead and sometimes they'll kill and keep their catch. Many of them hook and land steelhead, but more than a few kill them for their own food.

Where they draw the line is steelhead being sold as food.

So, maybe this post should be titled: why I buy steelhead to eat.

Because the dividing line seems to be that selling the fish is a sin. And, this is the notion I don't buy.

The movement to make steelhead a game fish began after World War I in Cascadia. The decommercialization (aside from a few tribal fishermen) was complete by the 1930s. There's a lot of history in those years leading up to today, but today only tribal fishermen are allowed to catch steelhead for commercial sale.

So, the steelhead burger I enjoyed in Portland about a month ago was more than likely tribally-caught.

This line drawing between commercial fish and game fish, fish you can buy and eat and fish that only sportsmen can catch is actually as old as sports fishing.

Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle, printed in 1496 is the first record of sport fishing. And, it also marks the economic and political division of game fish. In England, the game fish (salmon and trout) were reserved to nobles. While course fish (pike, carp, perch, etc) were available to common people.

This concept of game fishing, marking off species from commercial fishing, found new blood in the United States in the last 100 years. Especially since the founding of the Coastal Conservation Association in the 1970s, the game-fishication of certain species hit high speed.

I believe that people should be able to live from fishing. And, I believe that steelhead are no different than any other salmon.

This isn't an argument about salmon management or catching the last fish. Obviously, if there aren't enough fish to sustain a fishery, we shouldn't fish. What I'm arguing against is choosing only one group to have access to a certain species.

If you reached back down to the first decade of the 1900s and looked for steelhead references in newspapers, you'd see a commodity price listing for "steelhead salmon." This fish was usually less expensive than chinook salmon, it was a middle of the road and less plentiful option to larger salmon.

There's nothing special to report about its taste either. In the handful of times I've eaten steelhead, I've noted nothing particularly good about it. But, I always order it.

Because steelhead is food, which means commercial fishermen should be able to fish on healthy runs and sell their catch.

Like the nobles and game fish of England, game fish designations create separate classes of people who can and can't access fish. I don't fish. It isn't an economic choice for me, I could certainly afford to if it called to me and I had time. But, I don't fish. Which means I'm mostly cut out of eating steelhead, unless I can track it down.

But, steelhead belong to all of us. That there are some steelhead runs in Washington that are healthy enough is the result of our collective political will to hold off annihilating them, paving them under, replacing their habitat with ours, the way we've done it since Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle days.

David Montgomery traces this destructive history in King of Fish. He points out that from England to Cascadia, we've followed the same pattern. Fishing, weak laws, habitat destruction, and fish disappear from England, New England then Cascadia.  While he doesn't point directly to it, I draw another comparison to us repeating our fish history, that only a few are connected to the fish because they're game fished.

I eat steelhead because they're our state fish and I am as responsible for their fate as anyone else.

UPDATE (6/23/14 7:40 p.m.): Boy, this post sure did get around today!

So, I thought about how best to respond to the comments that have been coming in all day, and instead of taking them inline, I'll try to do a FAQ here as a post update.

1. Yes, I work at the NWIFC as an information officer. Which would help explain my interest in this topic, but not show some sort of shill-factor. I have no problem doing my job at work. The perspective I wanted to bring here was from me as a citizen and a consumer. Obviously I'm informed by my work, but that is obviously something I should have disclosed originally.

2. Steelhead are not in danger of being extinct across their entire range.

3. A good point was made that the steelhead I end up buying could be farmed rainbows. Excellent point. I just assume they're commercially caught, I have no actual evidence though.


Millsy said...


I dont question your right to write this, but I do believe that your a bit off base. Would you entertain the idea of hearing where most conservation and wild steelhead advocate groups consider you wrong....

Feel free to contact me via my blog.

Evan said...

This piece makes sense in the context you wrote it, but you're talking about a massively complicated topic.

First off, those who are against the sale and commercial harvest of steelhead would never, ever harvest a native steelhead. There are hatchery runs of fish that we harvest, because they are depleting our wild runs, but we're trying to get the hatchery programs dialed back because of that.

The fact of the matter is, steelhead cannot sustain commercial harvest. They in fact are different than the other salmons. Steelhead use a very different strategy from salmon in that they are a "quality over quantity" kind of fish. They naturally are in far fewer numbers and take advantage of more "niche" habitats in the river system to spawn. The other salmons have a strategy that involves much greater numbers of fish. Historically and presently, steelhead are a fish in far fewer numbers.

Despite what the marketing tells you, there is no sustainable way to run a commercial fishery on wild steelhead. Not through hatcheries, and not by harvesting naturally produced fish. There just aren't enough of them. Which is why they are listed as endangered or threatened throughout their entire natural range. The Olympic Peninsula, which is the source of those steelhead you buy, should also be listed, but is left off the list because of political pressure.

There are many of us who would love to educate you or anyone else who wishes to understand the situation better. Millsy up there is a great source of info.

Bob Triggs said...

How cute and glib. You have no serious understanding of the tragic failures in wild fish management with regard to the Washington State Fish, the wild Steelhead. Throughout their range of rivers in Washington they are in dire shape as a population, and in most watersheds they have been listed under the endangered species act. Here's why I don't even fish for them anymore:

Bob Triggs said...

also see:

Jon Tobey said...

You have so oversimplified the issue to just the outcome without any real covering of the facts, it's mind boggling.
Let's just suffice it to say this: people shouldn't be able to sell species on the endangered list, let along eat them. Would you eat tigers? pandas? gorillas? Just because somebody was allowed to hunt them?
This kind of churlish writing would go perfectly in The Onion, or maybe on April Fool's day, or even as an intelligent nod to Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal (brilliant a satire proposing people eat the infestations of street urchins, which actually went a long was to rescuing them), but as serious journalism, it ranks somewhat below the Daily Show, which is actually factually based.

I don't really think you need to go farther than that, but any intelligent, fact-based person could find stacks of research to support not eating these fish. I have yet to find any facts to support them as a commercial species. In fact, I wonder everyday why fishing for them hasn't been banned outright.
Especially if you consider that the "game" fish you are so proudly eating was most likely caught as a by product of gill-netting the river mouths, such an effective way to push a species to extinction that in its face, all combined conservation methods have had no impact on bringing the species back.(You would think it should be obvious that if no fish are making it back to the rivers to spawn, that is the problem, but it seems to escape notice. Having more fish (hatcheries) does't help because the netting takes the natives indiscriminately with their genetic inferiors.)
The worst part of it is, I think you know this is wrong but traded a little notoriety at the cost of misinforming and influencing those who don't know better.

Chris said...

The "steelhead" in your burger likely came from a fish farm where it has become common to market large rainbow trout as "steelhead."

With the rampant mislabeling of fish throughout the country I wouldn't be proud of the fact that you always order a specific type of fish since you really don't know what you're getting if you don't harvest it yourself or buy the whole fish.

Anonymous said...

So, the author did fail to post his credentials. As he does have some monetary interest in the sales of wild steelhead. Thought everyone should know that.

Chris Cole said...

But, steelhead belong to all of us.

I agree 100% with this sentiment.

That there are some steelhead runs in Washington that are healthy enough is the result of our collective political will to hold off annihilating them, paving them under, replacing their habitat with ours...

but this... we've done our damnedest to eradicate the steelhead and salmon from our rivers and streams. Increased population, deforestation of watersheds, dams, gill nets etc... It's incredible they've managed to eek by.

It seems you've put some thought into your stance, hopefully you might reconsider. The wild steelhead are for everyone, until they're for no one because there are none left.

Anonymous said...

As an employee of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission I'd think you'd know that black cod are much better table fare than steelhead, perhaps even chinook salmon. Way more tasty.

Bob said...

Emmett: I'm not surprised that you,as the Information Officer at the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, would be writing such an inflammatory article.

Somehow we are to view you as a regular protagonist, a hipster perhaps, rather than a provocateur. Nice try.

Anonymous said...

One of the most ignorant bloggers to find a keyboard, and that's saying a lot. People that write this crap, and worse, the people stupid enough to believe it are responsible for the "dumbing down of America". BTW: How was your triploid trout burger?

Laegreid Outdoors said...

Keeping steelhead out of restaurants and supermarkets is in no way about class warfare, as you seem to think. This is a battle for the life of the species. If there were enough steelhead to support a responsible commercial fishery, I don't think many people would mind. As it stands, however, there are run returns in the single digits in some rivers and, as a whole, the steelhead population is a tiny, tiny fraction of historical numbers. If you're looking for a fight, take it to the people who destroying our rivers, polluting our water, and generally not giving a damn about fish or the people that love them. Then you'll be doing something productive for these fish you like to eat, instead of writing about issues that don't exists.

Ben Paull said...

"Obviously, if there aren't enough fish to sustain a fishery, we shouldn't fish."

You could have just written that one sentence and it would have been a decent article. But the rest of it is complete and total crap, bordering on delusional.

Stumpy said...

Given your job with the Indian Fisheries Commission (that is on your facebook page but curiously listed as "non-profit information officer here) you would do well to educate yourself on the facts and differences between the management of Salmon and Steelhead (wild, farmed and hatchery) and the actual reasons why the prohibition on commercial harvest of steelhead exists (hint: it doesn't lie in medieval game restrictions by elitist royalty on the peasantry). Furthermore, your position brings into question your veracity and makes one question the real agenda behind your sophomoric position. Such public ignorance makes one wonder if you are even aware of the endangered status of wild steelhead at all.

Chris said...

You say, "Steelhead are not in danger of being extinct across their entire range."

So as long as there are "healthy" steelhead runs somewhere what we do in Washington doesn't matter?

It is too bad Helen Chenoweth is no longer around, you and her could get together and have an endangered "steelhead" bake.

Derek Young said...

The ethical angler, who pursues wild steelhead not to feed their ego, or their plate, as the author suggests, but to connect with the spirit of a magnificent species that along with salmon and a host of other wild species, we keep trying to do our worst to and see if they survive. Don't follow his misguided advice, but do educate yourself as to where your food comes from, especially wild fish, whether it is sustainable, or from stocks that are endangered. There is nothing honorable in being the cause of the decline of wild steelhead, and boasting of doing so is purely bad form and misguided.

Wild Steelhead are for the streams and rivers, not the dinner plate.

Anonymous said...

You're an uninformed profiteer. You are the problem with our dwindling resources and have no idea of the complexity of this issue.

Anonymous said...

Eating anything to make a statement is pointless, keep up the lame blog posts.

Anonymous said...

Your disclosures, or in this case, failure to disclose your affiliation(s) is/are glaring, sophomoric, unprofessional, manipulative, self serving, likely driven by ulterior motive, inflammatory and more! INFORMATION OFFICER ??? How do you fane ignorance on this issue? Shame on you!

Anonymous said...

you are an idiot

Anonymous said...

You did come back and offer some "disclosure" at the end of your article, but you're still not helping your cause. In fact, you're further showing your lack of knowledge on this topic. Willful ignorance perhaps?

You provided a link stating that steelhead aren't in danger in their entire range. Yet, the link does show that they are indeed in danger in almost their entire range. Not 100%, but nearing it. No population of steelhead has ever come off this list once it goes on. And more are constantly added as we learn more.

From the link you posted: "In four Washington, Oregon, California and Idaho (WOCI) ecoregions, more than half the steelhead populations are at high risk." You do know that all commercially caught and sold steelhead are from Washington, right? The tribal gill net fishery on these fish is the political catalyst for leaving the Olympic Peninsula fisheries open to harvest, even when their populations are on a severe decline, and the rivers are often not meeting their spawning goals.

You still fail to correct your blatant lack of knowledge on the biology of these fish, and your outdated, extremely flawed statements that they're no different than the other salmon. These fish do not have the same biology or life strategies, and should not be managed like they do.

Anonymous said...

What an obvious troll from someone with an agenda they are clearly trying to push. And your map is 10 years out of date

Anonymous said...

Just another self benefiting article from someone with a horse in the race to the extinction of a species. Keep in mind Boldt decision gives you the right to harvest half the run. Firstly you count your own catch so real honest numbers are non existent, second fifty percent of nothing is nothing and that's when this generation of tribal fisher will then demand yet more government subsidy. If I were in charge I'd save you the trouble and pay you not to fish. Now give me the "way of life bullshit" I'm waiting with expectant ears.