Category Archives: conservation

Better Life Thru Fungi

bilet1Last night I had dinner at a very cool space in Seattle called Art for Food, the creation of Maxime Bilet. Bilet is the indefatigable chef, artist, and co-author of Modernist Cuisine (with Nathan Myhrvold), the massive, multi-volume paean to innovative kitchen alchemy. Art for Food is his new 5,600-square-foot storefront on Western Avenue combining test kitchen, art gallery, performance space, retail shop, and a generally groovy hangout spot. Clearly Bilet has a lot of ideas about food and art and education, and his demeanor is laid back and approachable.

Back to the meal. On this night, Bilet was teaming up with New York (by way of India) chef Jehangir Mehta of Graffiti and Mehtaphor restaurants. Their theme: The Magic of Mycology. So you see why I was intrigued.

Bilet and Mehta both talked about their commitment to food policy issues and child nutrition education. When Mehta introduced himself, he said that one of his goals as a restaurateur was to not waste anything, whether making stocks from peelings or finding creative uses for leftovers, explaining that in India this is standard practice. I find it sad that here in the U.S. we’re still trying to grasp this concept. The idea for the mushroom dinner was to showcase how fungi can be both artfully incorporated into a meal and also used as a meat substitute, or at least partial substitute.

One of the courses was a little hamburger slider that was 30 percent fungi. Like all the food, it was delicious. There was a phở appetizer that relied on a savory mushroom broth rather than the typical beef broth. Another dish paired what some might consider a miserly portion of sea scallop singleton with king oyster mushroom medallions; the cultivated fungi bulked up the dish and perfectly accented the wild seafood. A butter-smooth poached Chinook salmon was bathed in enoki butter, peavines, and green garbanzo beans, with tiny pickled mushrooms adding a burst of earthy flavor.

I happened to be seated next to my friend John Sundstrom of Lark restaurant, one of Seattle’s early fungal adopters and an all-around fan of wild foods, and we both agreed the use of a variety of wild and cultivated mushrooms added depth and complexity to the meal while also demonstrating the possibilities for fungi to take the pressure off less sustainable foods.

Bilet and Mehta strike me as intensely curious by temperament. Let’s hope their curiosity continues to lead them in creative new directions to bring fungi to the people.

Empty Buckets?

There’s a lot of chatter right now in mycological circles about proposed legislation in Oregon to require permits for all mushroom harvesting in the state. As written, the law would apply to both commercial and recreational mushroom hunters, although there is a proposed amendment to exempt personal use gathering.

After reading through the documents, I’m still not sure what I think about the legislation. There are arguments to be made for and against permitting. Complicating the issue is a whirlwind of accusations and counter-accusations flying around the message boards. Some say the bill is designed to discourage out-of-state commercial pickers and buyers; on the flip side, private landowners claim that a robust permit system will help to limit theft and property damage by truffle poachers.

The issue of truffle poaching, I suspect, is a real problem in places such as the Willamette Valley, but perhaps it needs to be taken up separately. There is also the question of large numbers of mushroom hunters impacting sensitive habitats on public land. This, too, is no doubt a problem in a few select areas where the habitat is limited (e.g., the Oregon Dunes) or the numbers of harvesters exceptionally large (e.g., Crescent Lake). But it’s hard to imagine that these instances can’t be handled on a case-by-case basis.

In general, it seems to me that public land managers in Oregon are in a better position to determine regulatory decisions in their districts than a sweeping, citizen-backed legislative effort. Admittedly, one could argue that land managers are playing “catch-up ball” when it comes to all things mycological, and we also know that citizen efforts have been necessary through the years to move an intransigent governmental apparatus.

The bottom line is that I’m in favor of getting people outdoors to interact with their environment. Local, state, and federal governments should erect as few barriers as possible to this outcome, while simultaneously protecting our natural heritage for future generations. It’s a balancing act, to be sure.

For years, Washington State’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest has required all mushroom hunters be permitted (a free permit in the case of recreational pickers), ostensibly to study land use patterns and user group demographics. In this case, the data might be useful to land managers trying to make decisions about sensitive habitats. On the other hand, the permit is a barrier to what is essentially, in most cases, a low-impact outdoor activity. Besides, it’s only valid for 10 days, which strikes me as miserly, especially since a biannual commercial license is $125, considerably more than an annual fishing license.

I’d like to hear other thoughts on this subject. Comments open.

Photo: JacobC

End of the Line

Imagine a world without fish.

On June 8 the film End of the Line was released. I encourage you to see it. The movie is based on a fine book by British journalist Charles Clover. I remember reading the book several years ago and thinking, this should wake up a few folks. But change is slow. The question is: Do we have enough time?

In one passage about the harmful effects of bottom trawling, Clover asks readers to to imagine “what people would say if a band of hunters strung a mile of net between two immense all-terrain vehicles and dragged it at speed across the plains of Africa.” The result, in this apt analogy, is a “strangely bedraggled landscape resembling a harrowed field. There are no markets for about a third of the animals they have caught because they don’t taste good or because they are simply too small or too squashed. This pile of corpses is dumped on the plain to be consumed by scavengers.”

This is just one of the common practices that occurs on the high seas every day.

Over-fishing, habitat destruction, and pollution are taking a toll that, for many generations, was hard to quantify—because it was hard to see. Then the great Atlantic cod fishery collapsed and since then the litany of diminished fisheries has been ever-increasing. The decline and fall is now clearly visible if we open our eyes. I’ve lived in Seattle since 1991—less than 20 years. In that short time I’ve watched certain salmon and steelhead runs in Puget Sound dwindle to near extinction. Shellfish beaches have closed. Limits on crabs continue to shrink, and stocks of rockfish are being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

In 2002 the sorely missed Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a 5-part series, “Our Troubled Sound,” that was a clarion call for anyone who thinks the Sound looks just dandy from the top deck of a ferryboat. More recently PBS Frontline has documented the hurdles facing the cleanup of Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound. (You can watch the entire 2-hour program, “Poisoned Waters,” here.)

So, what can you do? For starters, you can get involved with your local watershed. In my area, Puget Sound Partnership and a number of smaller environmental groups are doing the heavy lifting; no doubt there’s a group of concerned citizens in your area too. You can also make a difference with your purchasing decisions. As a consumer it’s very difficult to know how to purchase fish wisely. Fish don’t come with labels. Usually we don’t know the specifics of where they’re caught, by whom, and with what equipment. Seafood Watch tries to take some of the mystery out of the equation so you can make an informed decision. Check out their helpful Seafood Guide—and make sure to bookmark it.

A Sad Record

The interweb has been buzzing recently with news of a tremendous wild steelhead caught on Washington State’s Hoh River. Normally such a fish would be worth celebrating, but these are not normal times. Though I was initially intending to stay out of the fray on this one, it occurs to me on second thought that I’ll be touching on some of these issues in print soon, so I might as well wade into the controversy now.

The behemoth pictured above was hooked, landed, and…killed. The angler has been quoted saying the fish was bleeding from the gill and he thought it would die if released. We’ll never know. It was tallied a day later, weighing in at 29.5 pounds, a state record. The fish was not eaten; it will hang on a wall.

The death of such a magnificent animal—and its pre-spawning removal from a diminished gene pool—saddens me. Wild steelhead are in bad shape throughout most of their range. This fish came from the Olympic Peninsula’s “West End,” the rainforest rivers that drain off the western edge of the Olympic Mountains into the Pacific and contain, by all accounts, the last best habitat for native steelhead in the Lower 48.

Incredibly, on a handful of these rivers it is still legal to kill one wild steelhead a year, a concession that no one would argue is a political bone thrown to the down-at-the-heels timber town of Forks, Washington, where town fathers are convinced a catch-and-kill fishery is necessary to attract paying anglers from around the world who want nothing more than to catch and kill a trophy steelhead. One wonders if these same “sportsmen” would leap at the chance to legally take one of the last Siberian tigers or Javan rhinos.

I’m not opposed to killing fish. Quite the contrary, I enjoy fishing for healthier runs of salmon in the fall to stock my freezer. Mostly, though, I release fish, especially those from beleaguered runs—even if the regulations allow for their taking. No shortage of huffing and puffing has been expended by supporters of catch and kill to point out the hypocrisy of those of us in favor of catch and release. Fly-fishermen in particular are deemed elitist. Now you may wonder why I advocate ending catch-and-kill steelhead fishing but still support catch-and-release. It’s not pretzel logic. Anglers are probably the steelhead’s best friend. Author David James Duncan has already given an eloquent response to this question.

So here’s my position:

First, I believe wild steelhead should be no-kill wherever they are found in their native range. Take hatchery steelhead home for the barbecue; leave the wild fish in the river. This is my practice whenever I go steelhead fishing, which isn’t much anymore. The wild steelhead I’ve caught on the OP and elsewhere have all been returned to the river. I do not keep wild fish, even where it is legal to do so. If I had caught that fish, I would have let it go—bleeding gill or not—and hoped for the best.

Second, I am not opposed to future limited kill fisheries if steelhead conservation measures are successful. Unfortunately, I don’t see this happening any time soon.

Third, I recognize catch-and-release fishing is a blood sport. In pursuing my interest in fishing, I have inadvertently killed released fish; it’s a statistical probability. I don’t deny this. But legions of anglers such as myself are also responsible for the conservation victories throughout the land helping wild fish and watersheds. This may sound like a paradox to some, but it is a fact nonetheless.

Fourth, I cannot imagine staring at that great fish on the wall every day. Far from being a remembrance of a beautiful day on the river, it would make me sick. Those who hunt and fish only to adorn their walls with “trophies” should skip the “manly arts” altogether and turn directly to the back of the classifieds for ads on penis enlargement surgery.

If you’re interested in steelhead and salmon conservation, check out the Wild Steelhead Coalition and the Wild Salmon Center.


In recent weeks there has been a trio of developments in the West that should excite hunters and nature buffs, all involving wolves. For the first time in several decades, wolf packs have been confirmed in both Washington and Oregon, and a federal judge has ruled to temporarily place wolves back on the Endangered Species list, effectively scuttling the wanton killing in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana following de-listing earlier this year.

Why should hunters be excited? This is certainly an emotional issue, but in FOTL’s opinion, any real hunter would want to practice his age-old craft in an environment that hasn’t been debased by the elimination of top predators. Any real hunter would be in tune enough with his environment to see the benefit of returning wolves to their rightful place. Any real hunter wouldn’t believe for a moment the red herring arguments about wolves devastating elk populations.

Just look at Yellowstone NP. With the return of the wolf, elk are no longer lounging around in the willow beds like tenured tourist attractions, munching their way through the web of life. Elk are once again on the move as wolf packs pick off the sick and the old. Now the willows are back—and so are trout populations that depend on willow cover for shade; so are willow flycatchers and all sorts of other songbirds and small mammals; so are the raptors that feed on the small birds and mammals. Meanwhile the leftover wolf kills feed grizzly bears, eagles, ravens, and host of other scavengers.

In biological terms, this is called the trophic cascade. When you remove top predators from an ecosystem, all sorts of ecological mayhem ensues, with unintended consequences right down to the level of single-celled organisms. The result is an impoverished landscape.

Yes, resurgent wolves will occasionally take livestock—but there are costs associated with living in harmony with the natural world and its critters. The costs of living with wolves will be a pittance compared to the costs racked up by climate change. The sooner we learn how to live responsibly, the better. It’s a simple question of ethics, really.

I’d like to hear from my hunting readership on this issue. My guess is that most hunters who read FOTL would be thrilled to hear a wolf howl in the wilderness—but maybe not. As a forager, I spend a lot of time in our wild places. Those places will feel a little wilder with wolves in the mix.

(photo by ucumari)

Hazel Wolf Environmental Film Festival

The 10th annual Hazel Wolf Environmental Film Festival starts today and runs through May 4. Films will be shown on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. You can see a schedule here.

Hazel Wolf was an amazing person. She was born at the end of the 19th century and lived to be 101. She was active in the burgeoning environmental movement—as co-founder of Seattle Audubon, among many other achievements—and continued this activism through her long life. She was the National Audubon Society’s Conservationist of the Year in 1978. I had the good fortune to interview Hazel for The Nature Conservancy magazine in the early 1990s, when she was in her nineties and still going strong.

The Hazel Wolf Film Festival’s mission is to bring “filmmakers together with environmental activists, educators, government, scientists, business, and concerned citizens, to improve the quality and effective use of environmental media.”

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

I’m always amused by the accusations aimed at sea lions by angry fishermen. Can we get something straight? The sorry state of our salmon fisheries has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with a bunch of resourceful pinnipeds. It has everything to do with a bunch of resourceful bipeds.

Sea lions are opportunists by nature, sorta like humans. A few of them—the Lewis and Clarks of the sea lion crowd—discovered that you could swim 100 miles up the Columbia River and find easy pickings at the Bonneville Dam fish ladder. They told their buddies. Now there’s a sea lion convention below the dam.

Last year while shad fishing at Bonneville, I ran into a crusty old sturgeon fisherman. He was catching shad for bait that day. Wrap-around mirror sunglasses and fatigues. A real hombre. He told me a sad story about how the sea lions had learned to target sturgeon when their usual tablefare wasn’t around, said he’d witnessed it himself. “Ain’t a pretty sight. Got-damn lion taking down a 80-year-old fish, fish been swimmin’ around down there since before any of us were bornt.”

As he was packing up to leave, the sturgeon fisherman gave me a wink and said there were ways to deal with the sea lions. A couple days later I read a story about a lion washing up dead, several bullet slugs in its head, and thought of my sturgeon fishing friend.

This year the feds are trapping some of the sea lions and hauling them off to zoos. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has the story.

(photo by embot)

Save Our Wild Salmon

Somehow I missed the official kick-off of Save Our Wild Salmon‘s road show in Seattle on April 9. Maybe you missed it too. I get tons of mass-mails from a variety of enviro groups. The cumulative effect can be a desensitizing. But now, with the emergency closure of much of the West Coast to commercial and recreational salmon fishing, Save Our Wild Salmon’s newest campaign to spread the word is gaining traction. That’s a good thing, because wild salmon and steelhead don’t have much time left in the Lower 48.

The road show will travel 10,000 miles through 20 states on its journey across the country to Washington, D.C., “to educate the public about the Northwest salmon crisis and encourage people to be part of the solution.”

At the center of the road show is Fin, a 2-ton, 25-foot fiberglass salmon. You can keep up with the migration of Fin at Save Our Wild Salmon’s blog.

Bottom line: Breach four pork-barrel dams on the lower Snake River asap!

(Thanks to Buster Wants to Fish for bringing this to my attention.)

Wake-Up Call

California’s coastal salmon season has been cancelled. That’s right, all coastal fishing for salmon—both commercial and recreational—is kaput. The Governator has declared a state of emergency and filed for federal disaster relief. Even though the ban is for only one year, this could be the death-knell for the state’s storied commercial salmon fleet. Much of Oregon will be shut down, too. The San Francisco Chronicle has the story.

FOTL’s condolences go out to his brothers and sisters of the angle to the south, and though his home state dodged the bullet, Washington won’t be looking forward to a stellar season either, with chinook spotty and coho numbers way down.

These are not good times to be a salmon and steelhead fisherman. We can only hope that a move as drastic as this will provoke the necessary soul-searching to effect change. Salmon evolved to survive droughts, floods, volcanoes, predation, periodic downturns in marine productivity, and whatever else Mother Nature could throw at them. But they’re no match for dams, hatcheries, pollution, rapacious logging, profligate irrigation, flood-plain subdivisions, and desert golf courses. Do you want wild salmon? The choice is ours.

The Cost of Our Appetites…

…for cheap power, timber, produce, development, and so on.

A story in today’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer by enviro reporter Robert McClure raises the specter of $40 salmon this season. That’s $40 per pound! Federal authorities will be meeting near Seattle this week to decide the fate of California and Oregon’s chinook fisheries. As reported earlier, the California fishery is on the verge of total collapse, with returns at historical lows. We keep hearing noise about poor ocean conditions beyond our control, but really now: Could it just possibly be that agricultural diversions, subdivisions, dams, pollution, and a host of other man-made problems up and down the Golden State have finally taken their toll?

The modern history of salmon is a history of depletion and collapse wherever humans have settled and fished, with government failing the people at every step. The first to go were Atlantics in Western Europe, then Atlantics in the New World, now Pacific salmon on the West Coast. Is Alaska next? Fortunately the State of Alaska is taking steps to safeguard its prolific wild runs, such as a ban on farmed salmon. But timber, mining, and development continue to knock at the door.

Let’s look at McClure’s article a little more closely, because at least we have a reporter here who gets it.

* In the 8th graf he notes the rising price of chum salmon, the species of Pacific salmon at the very bottom of the commercial totem poll, the salmon also called “dog” because it’s frequently used to feed sled-dog teams rather than people way up north. This is a scary thought.

* The next graf is telling, with a quote from a seafood marketer who refers to America as a “nation of salmon eaters.” Good for us. Salmon are a superfood, loaded with Omega-3 fatty acids. When managed correctly, they provide a renewable cocktail of nutrition on a massive scale. We would be beyond stupid to let such a resource slip away.

* In the 11th graf McClure explains that the Alaska catch forecast for this year is down from last year by more than a third—but no biggie, because last year saw a peak catch. Salmon are cyclical. While their numbers go up and down, if managed correctly the down years can still be good years, with no reason to fear the future.

* Graf 15 presents the enviro view of California: the slide is due to “diversions of massive amounts of water to farms and cities from salmon streams in California’s Central Valley.”

* The next graf is the usual hemming and hawing from the feds: “…an unusual weather pattern that pummeled the marine food web, killing tens of thousands of seabirds and leaving the young salmon with little to eat.” Maybe. But nature doesn’t usually conspire to eliminate a species as resilient as the salmon.

* A little further down McClure introduces an interesting wrinkle: the fact that, despite the catastrophic chinook projections, the commercial whiting fleet is dumping overboard an estimated 6,000 dead salmon off the West Coast, salmon caught in their nets known euphemistically as “bycatch.” Hello? Can the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) please do something about this? And even if you’re going to allow bycatch, can we please get those dead salmon back to shore so we can use them in the myriad in-river restoration projects going on that require salmon carcasses to replenish the nutrient load, projects such as this.

* Which leads us to graf 29 way down near the bottom of the article, the money graf in my opinion. In the larger picture this could be called a case of burying the lead, but give McClure credit—very few reporters ever get this far at all. In graf 29 McClure explains the nature of what is known in scientific circles as shifting baseline syndrome as it applies to Pacific salmon, and I’ll quote the graf in its entirety: “Overall, salmon runs have been pummeled in Washington and Oregon, compared with historic levels. For example, while scientists estimate that perhaps 5 million to 9 million chinook returned to the Columbia River each year in the late 1800s, the number returning there from 1979 to 2006 averaged just 135,000.”

There it is folks! Your greatest chinook salmon factory on the planet, the Columbia River system, has gone from producing an average of 5 to 9 million chinook annually to 135,000. California’s great chinook nursery, the Sacramento watershed, is in similar straits. Blame this sudden 100-year plummet on poor ocean survival? I think not.

So when—if—you pay $40 for two serving sizes of salmon at the fish market, ask yourself just what the cost really is.

(top image Adam Holloway)