Wild salmon and their lifecycles are truly some of the most incredible living things and systems ever to evolve on the planet. Hatched often into tiny streams, they find their way to the ocean where they may range thousands of miles in search of food, before returning to their natal streams to spawn, then die. Some salmon travel 1,000 miles upriver from the ocean to spawn where they hatched. It’s a massive transfer of marine energy and nutrients to inland rivers and lakes. Salmon breed, they die, their carcasses provide a bounty for scavengers from the plant and animal kingdoms. Watersheds that support healthy salmon exist in a fragile balance, and too often they’ve been manipulated and destroyed. To put it bluntly, human civilization has, at first on purpose and now in a bumbling effort to help, interrupted the salmon’s miraculous life cycle.
That’s the story Artifishal is telling, a new documentary from Patagonia, which you can watch in its entirety, below. Specifically, the film is a close look at the messy world of fish hatcheries, both literally in terms of quantities of fish scales and eggs and sperm that run like water in them, and philosophically, as it invites us to ponder why we seek to control natural elements that we so often profess a love for. It also illustrates that people’s livelihoods can depend on hatchery fish while questioning and pointing an accusatory finger at an industrial and artificial solution that creates fish in order to replenish the fish our industrial civilization destroys. Hence the name.
It’s contradictory, at least in terms of outright logic, but the point Artifishal makes is that hatcheries are likely doing far more harm than good. They paper over very real problems of overfishing and habitat destruction that would be far better addressed by destroying dams and restoring wild, free-flowing rivers and streams. Hatchery fish can outcompete native fish, spread disease, and pollute waterways with nitrogen blooms, among other foreign chemicals. Hatcheries may be well-meaning, the film says, or they can be cynical attempts to excuse the destruction of a waterway caused by a dam, but either way, for the most part, they’re contributing to the depletion of salmon runs.
And that’s not even to mention the off-putting reality that many hatcheries, especially those that grow trout, are often just growing living fish to be planted in rivers and lakes to be caught by recreational anglers. Which, while fishing for hatchery-raised fish can be fun, or, in some cases, crucial to a Native American group that relies on them, it is not at all indicative of a healthy river system.
Who’s at fault? There’s the problem, the philosophical crux at the heart of this story. Hatcheries were meant to preserve. Dams offer clean energy. There’s not an easy villain in this tale.
That’s also not to say all hatcheries are all bad. Some exist to preserve species that face immediate demise from habitat loss, for example. Nor do all artificial programs that exist to assist salmon and trout on their runs upriver to spawn. It’s messy.
But Artifishal, as well as books like Langdon Cook’s excellent Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon From River to Table, will educate on just what’s happened to the massive salmon runs that once were ubiquitous across the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Watch below.