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Serving up the 'compleat' salmon

16 November 2006

The salmon is more than just a fish. It has become a symbol of fortitude, fecundity, self-sacrifice, loyalty to place and unwavering pursuit of destiny. Now, an innovative and richly illustrated bio-biography by Dr Peter Coates, an environmental historian at the University of Bristol, tells the story of this remarkable species.

Salmon examines the natural history of the salmon and looks at it from the perspectives of those who have studied it, eaten it, pursued it, fought over it, pondered its meaning and absorbed it into culture and art. 

Every year, wild salmon travel hundreds of miles upstream from the Atlantic and Pacific. They fight fierce river currents, leap over rocks and small waterfalls, and die by the thousands of starvation, disease and exposure to cold.  Even if they surmount these obstacles the fish risk becoming dinner for hungry predators such as bears, birds and humans. Guided by a keen sense of smell, the survivors travel to their original hatching grounds, where they spawn and (mostly) die in a short space of time.

This remarkable homing instinct has inspired mankind to revere the shapely salmon, yet it has also become a deeply paradoxical and controversial creature.  Celebrated for centuries as the noblest of fish (not least by Izaak Walton), it is now just as likely to be deplored as the ignoble product of the aquatic equivalent of battery farming. 

Dr Coates’ wide-ranging biography of a species encompasses the salmon’s evolutionary, ecological and human stories, ranging from Nova Scotia to Norway and from Korea to California, and stretching from prehistory to the future. 

Peter Coates is Reader in American and Environmental History, Department of Historical Studies, University of Bristol.  He is the author of The Trans-Alaska Pipeline Controversy (1991), Nature: Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times (1998) and American Perceptions of Immigrant and Invasive Species: Strangers on the Land (forthcoming 2006), and co-author of Environment and History: The Taming of Nature in the United States and South Africa (1995).

Salmon is published by Reaktion Books in its `Animal’ series.

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