Book reviews: The salmon

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The Salmon
Michael Wigan
(HarperCollins, £25 *£18)

Among the most emotive creatures of the Northern Hemisphere, our migratory salmon is both an emblem of valour and a popular food fish. Its nomadic lifestyle has been dramatically recounted in a daunting number of volumes-both piscatorial and biological-yet few have explored the subject with more aplomb than Michael Wigan’s latest book.

The seven sections of The Salmon (boldly subtitled ‘The Extraordinary Story of the King of Fish’) are effectively interdependent essays. They include ‘The Journey’, which charts the anadromous cycle that remains mysterious to this day; ‘The Pressure’, which examines several threats from modern technology; and ‘The Culture’, which covers aspects of anthropology from superstition to aboriginal methods of capture.

Although there are occasional passages about the passionate experience of angling, this is no mere sportfisherman’s celebration-it is a forensic, and often caustic, analysis of the historical interaction between humans and ‘the silver wanderer’.

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Sir Michael is no ‘armchair theorist’. As manager of the Helmsdale Fishery Board, he lives on the river and has extensive personal knowledge of numerous waterways both in Scotland and abroad. He rolls up his sleeves and investigates his subject on fish farms and trawlers; he visits Russia’s Kola Peninsula, and the hallowed streams of the Canadian Maritimes; he is not a great fan of received wisdom.

The research has evidently been deep and vigorous and, on the whole, he marshals sometimes elaborate scientific notions with admirable clarity, although matters can become quite convoluted around the various perils facing Atlantic salmon. But there can be little doubt that the entire undertaking is suffused with a passionate devotion to a fish he calls ‘natural royalty’.

I learned a lot. Our assiduous author discourses on pelagic trawls, hormones, genetic impurity, sexually precocious parr, tribal rituals, hydro-power, dams, seals, lice, ghillies, sturgeon, sockeye, triploids, politicians and toxic sludge. There are some nice anecdotes, too: I particularly relished the Irish poacher who claimed a fish must have jumped into his boot in the dark. As Sir Michael shuttles widely across these subjects, his work assumes the texture of a bolt of Hebridean tweed-complex and stylish, if a little uneven in places.

He has a graphic turn of phrase. A cock salmon’s kyped head ‘attains a super-gothic ferocity’; when a fish escapes the ‘mind floods with a weird sort of cosmic sorrow’. But perhaps his strongest writing belongs to the section entitled ‘Extinction Vortex’, which addresses the devastating rise in marine aquaculture and the ‘punchdrunk international corporations’ behind it. I don’t think I’ve read a more trenchant and salutary summation of this matter. Not only are the political and environmental aspects deftly presented-the lack of accountability and regulation, the collusion of certain scientists with big, bullying businesses-but there is a catalogue of gruesome detail that would arrest any reader.

Pens for farming salmon (or ‘fakes’) are frequently rife with disease and periodically zapped with questionable chemicals. The fish are overcrowded and infested with lice (one solution, to introduce lice-eating wrasse to these cages, had to be stopped when the newcomers began snacking on salmonid eye-balls). Rotting casualties (‘morts’) are sometimes so thick, one diver described it as like ‘thousand island dressing’. According to this restless, energetic book, the future for the King of Fish is ‘not a bonny prospect’.

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