|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.