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Chefs turn lobbyists on Hill to save wild salmon

LESLIE COLE
The Oregonian
June 12, 2007

Add lobbyist to the job description of chef. That is, if you're a chef like Greg Higgins, who takes his food politics as seriously as his mise en place. Led by a gal from Berkeley named Alice Waters, Higgins and fellow food professionals (including Peter Roscoe of Fulio's Pastaria in Astoria and former Seattleite Charles Ramseyer, now executive chef at New York's Wild Salmon) stepped out of the kitchen in early May to join fishermen, seafood brokers and other salmon champions for a week of politicking in Washington, D.C.

Their mission: to tell the nation's power brokers why wild salmon deserves protection and more vigorous efforts to recover their dwindling numbers.

We caught up with Higgins to find out what happened inside the Beltway, and where conservation efforts are headed. (Answers were edited for brevity and clarity.)

You say that to save salmon -- an endangered species -- we have to eat it. Explain.

People have to understand how precious and special it is. Eating is certainly one way to do that, and hopefully it will raise their consciousness as to how irreplaceable they are. It's not an overfishing issue, it's a habitat issue. If we lose the fish, we're losing the battle overall because that means our watersheds are rapidly going downhill, and there'll be no life without healthy watersheds.

How do you tell someone to buy only wild salmon when it can cost as much as $20 a pound?

The reason we're facing those kind of prices now is because of mismanagement (during) the past few years. (Eating) it doesn't have to be an everyday thing at this point in time, because of the scarcity. It should be a celebratory thing, a special-occasion thing. Beef tenderloin is $20 a pound, too, but we don't eat that every day of the week.

This was a lobbying trip, correct? What did you hope to get out of it?

Mostly I wanted to get across how significant an issue it is, and hopefully spur on politicians to take action on two bills and recognize an impending threat to some of the greatest wild salmon waters in the world, up in Alaska's Bristol Bay.

Tell me about the two bills.

Two years ago the Bush administration chose to give away very vital water . . . in the Klamath River for irrigation purposes. (As a result) there were huge salmon die-offs in the Klamath Basin. That kicked in the Endangered Species ruling, so the National Marine Fisheries Service had to enact (salmon fishing) closures, which took effect last year. The result was devastating to the coastal salmon belts of Oregon and commercial fishing communities from Northern California all the way up through Washington. So the first is a relief bill, $60.4 million in aid for those communities hit hardest by that closure. (The measure passed two weeks ago as part of a supplemental appropriations bill.)

The second bill (the Salmon Economic Analysis and Planning Act, or SEAPA) is designed to produce an up-to-date piece of research looking at the whole Columbia and Snake river system and what's needed to get things back in balance there, so that we can rectify the problems that are causing (fishery) closures out on the ocean.

The other thing we were trying to get on the radar is the Pebble Mine: The state of Alaska and the federal government are looking to allow the permitting to a Canadian multinational mining firm of the biggest open-pit gold and copper mine in history at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, the most pristine salmon habitat we have in the world right now. We're trying to show politicians how significant it is and how foolish we feel that would be to go ahead with that.

We care plenty about wild salmon in the Northwest. Is it on anyone's radar screen east of the Rockies, and specifically in Washington, D.C.?

Absolutely, though it's fairly predictable which politicians lean more favorably toward environmental concerns. In the West, including Idaho and Alaska, there's bipartisan support. As you move farther east, there's less awareness. Much of our time was devoted to helping bring attention to that.

What happened that helped further your cause of salmon protection? Anything specific in the works?

The gist of it was trying to make sure that the people we need to sponsor those bills were sponsoring them, and to pressure other congressmen and senators either to sponsor or to support the bills. It's not the typical arena that we chefs like to play in, but it's important from the politicians' standpoint to see somebody take time out of their daily routine to make that trip and speak to them directly about how significant those causes are.

Did you change any minds or get any new pledges of support?

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) came forward and pledged to co-sponsor the SEAPA bill, which is significant.

Is "greenwashing" happening in seafood, where vendors and restaurants sell farmed salmon that's labeled "wild"?

I'm sure it has happened. I know for a fact that I've had product shipped to me that's been mislabeled.

How, then, can consumers know if the "wild salmon" on the menu or in the fish case truly is wild?

The No. 1 thing is having a good, knowledgeable vendor and/or chef and having confidence in that relationship. Typically, in the fish case (salmon) is already cut. It's tricky business to have a sharp enough eye to pick out the difference between wild and farmed. But the most basic thing is, if it says Atlantic salmon or Norwegian salmon, then by all means you're talking about a farm-raised product.

But with salmon numbers dwindling, isn't the wild fish I eat just reducing the population further?

The way the fishery itself is managed -- meaning the quotas they're allowed to take at sea and in the estuaries with the native fishers -- those numbers are carefully controlled and carefully thought out and examined on an ongoing basis. If you look at the number of fish taken through sport, commercial and native fisheries and compare it to the number of fish that return, (fishing) is certainly not the issue that's affecting them. Losses are occurring because of water-quality issues; young fish that migrate to the sea (die) when the water is too warm, too turbid or too low. When there's not enough water out there, they become prey for all sorts of fishing birds and other animals.