About 10 years ago my friend Charles Johnson, the Vermont state naturalist, called me with a question about salmon. I was surprised and flattered to have Charles ask me about anything natural, for Charles holds an encyclopedic knowledge about the natural world and a deep but nonpedantic environmental ethic. Usually I call him. When I was writing a book about New England’s forests, I called Charles, and he made bog ecology, which is as complicated as calculus, seem as plain as pancakes. And when a woman I’d fallen in love with told me she had always wanted to see moose, I called Charles and asked him where to find moose. “Victory Bog,” he said. At Victory Bog my love and I found moose, and three years later we married.
Now Charles was calling me. “Got a question,” he said. “We’ve got some people over for dinner”—from the background came a rowdy banter—“and we were having this discussion. We’re wondering is it OK to eat salmon?”
This explained the call. As Charles knew, I am an avid salmon angler, and I had just written a book called The Great Gulf, about decimated ocean fisheries, and several articles about salmon. This made me a sort of salmon-expert-for-the-day. Charles, meanwhile, was as confused as most eco-conscious people are about the shifting fates and statuses of the world’s saltwater fish.
“How do you mean ‘OK’?” I asked.
“Well, you know—ecologically,” said Charles. “Are salmon fisheries sustainable?”
“Depends,” I said. “What kind of salmon?”
“I was afraid of that,” I said. “Atlantics are lovely fish. But any Atlantic salmon you buy in a store came from a farm.”
“Oh,” said Charles. “Is farmed salmon not so good?”
“Did you already eat this fish?” I asked.
He laughed. “That bad, huh?”
A little while later, when I had explained it all, he said, “I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know this.”
I assured him—this was 10 years ago—that few people did. “Probably even most state naturalists don’t know this.”
“Maybe,” he said. “I better go. Dessert’s ready. And I gotta hide a salmon carcass.
“But do me a favor, will you?” he asked. “Don’t tell anybody about this.”
Now, 10 years later, many people, both foodies and greenies, still struggle to answer Charles Johnson’s question: Is it OK to eat farmed salmon?