‘Owned by everyone’: the plight, poetry and science of the salmon

WELCOME

This is the home page of an international conference to be held on 11-12 December 2019 at the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and Pembroke College, Cambridge. But in the months before and after that gathering, it’s also our hope that this will become a different and wholly benign kind of net, one which will catch the latest research on salmon, and salmon in the news, alongside also links to images, stories, poems, sculpture, art, through which salmon swim. But we’ll also be adding information about the conference itself: confirmation of speakers, and details of how to book a place. For the moment, please register your interest and to receive updates on the sidebar.

ABOUT THE HOSTS

Pembroke College Cambridge was founded in 1347, and is the third oldest of Cambridge University’s 31 Colleges. Its distinguished alumni number world-leading scientists, politicians, musicians and poets, amongst them the poet, fisherman and conservationist Ted Hughes (1930-1998).

The Cambridge Conservation Initiative is a is a unique collaboration between the University of Cambridge and leading internationally-focused biodiversity conservation organisations clustered in and around Cambridge, UK. Based in the University of Cambridge’s David Attenborough Building, its reach is global, and it builds networks between scientists, conservationists, artists and the general public through a number of events and publications.

Salmon and Trout Conservation is the UK’s only independent charity campaigning nationally for the protection and healthy habitats wild fish need.

PEMBROKE COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE

CONFERENCE OUTLINE

This conference, co-hosted by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and Pembroke College Cambridge, and convened with Salmon and Trout Conservation, is inspired by the example of the British poet, environmentalist and by his own admission ‘obsessive salmon fisherman’ Ted Hughes (1930-1998). For over thirty years Hughes dreamed and caught and wrote of salmon, raising his own voice and pen in their defence. ‘I offered all I had for a touch of their wealth.’ The salmon smolt, he knew, is ‘Owned by everyone’: he regarded the salmon itself as ‘the weaver at the source’, not just of the rivers and seas it connects, but of our understanding of habitat fragility and responsibility for its protection.

Two days of talks on the salmon’s life and cultural significance will follow Hughes’s campaigning example, renew conversations across disciplines as well as national borders, and stimulate new action. The conference aims to bring together those who value the salmon, from Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Canada as well as the United Kingdom: fisheries scientists and environmentalists of course, but representatives from the polar first nations, cultural historians and anthropologists, literary critics, artists, story-tellers and fishermen-conservationists, among them at least one who knew and fished with Ted Hughes himself.


The International Year of the Salmon has proved that Salmo Salarhas its champions. Fisheries scientists, environmentalists and anglers understand more than ever about this most totemic of creatures. They recognize the ‘thousand perils’ Hughes knew it faced, water quality, predation, pollution, and agriculture, and now climate change, throughout its mysterious and heroic journey from spawning gravels high up streams and rivers of the Northern Atlantic to its feeding grounds off Greenland and back again. But the salmon still needs a voice.

OUR CONFERENCE AIMS AND SCHEDULE

THIS CONFERENCE, hosted by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and Pembroke College, and co-convened with Salmon and Trout Conservation, is inspired by the example of the British poet, environmentalist and by his own admission ‘compulsive salmon fisherman’ Ted Hughes (1930-1998). For over thirty years Hughes dreamed and caught and wrote of salmon, raising his own voice and pen in their defence. ‘I offered all I had for a touch of their wealth.’ The salmon smolt, he wrote in his 1985 poem ‘The Best Worker in Europe’, written to fundraise for the Atlantic Salmon Trust, , is ‘Owned by everyone’: he regarded the salmon itself as ‘the weaver at the source’, not just of the rivers and seas it connects, but of our understanding of habitat fragility and responsibility for its protection.

Two days of talks on the salmon’s life and cultural significance, past and present, will follow Hughes’s campaigning example, renew conversations across disciplines as well as national borders, and stimulate new action. The conference will bring together those with very different experiences of the salmon, from Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Alaska as well as the United Kingdom: fisheries scientists and environmentalists of course, but representatives from the polar first nations, cultural historians and anthropologists, literary critics, artists, story-tellers and fishermen-conservationists, among them at least one who knew and fished with Ted Hughes himself.

Through a series of short invited talks, designed to inspire and share the speakers’ own sense of wonder at these fish, extended panel discussions, readings from Hughes’s work and from Pembroke College’s remarkable collection of the poet’s manuscripts, books and fishing tackle, we want to explore the state of the art and science of the salmon, and address the best ways of responding to the grave dangers it now faces. A conference dinner will be held in Pembroke’s Old Library, and our after dinner speaker will be the distinguished fishing writer, novelist and memoirist David Profumo, who fished with Ted Hughes. The Old Library is directly below Hughes’s undergraduate rooms — he was a student at Pembroke from 1951-54. The College now has a unique collection of his manuscripts, printed books and fishing tackle, as well as his ink-stained writing desk and chair, which sit below specially commissioned stained glass windows to Hughes’s poetry.

We will begin by comparing the results of recent genetic mapping of distinct Chinook populations in different rivers of the Pacific North West. Some runs are in steep decline, others thrive. Why? What can we learn from the remarkable taxonomies for salmon that indigenous cultures have developed over centuries of living with these fish? And what might these insights teach students of ‘the different tribes’, as Hughes described them, of English and Scottish and Irish Atlantic salmon?

The upper Taw, high on Dartmoor, a few miles from Hughes’s home

Our attention will then turn to the different habitats on which the health of the salmon has always depended, from clean spawning gravels to abundant invertebrate life in free flowing cold water streams, to the rivers, estuaries, coastal waters and oceans that smolt and mature salmon must negotiate en route to and from their polar feeding grounds. How many smolts make it out to sea, and how many are lost there?  What if any human interventions can make a positive difference to these rates of survival and return?

Stump Pool on the Torridge, the subject of a fine poem by Hughes, ‘Stump Pool in April’

Of all these habitats, it’s the river that remains the site of richest human interaction with and management of salmon. It’s where we catch them, or at least catch sight of them, in all their heroism, leaping water falls, enduring months of abstinence, moments of madness, as they prepare to spawn. Here Hughes’s own example is particularly apt. It was the rivers of Devon, Scotland, Ireland and Alaska that inspired his most memorable writing about salmon, in his collection River(1983, revised 1993) and elsewhere. The river is, as Hughes put it, ‘engine of earth’s renewal’, but his experience of fighting to save the river Torridge in the 1980s proved to him how fragile an engine it could be, how much its efficiency and the benefits to all who lived in and beside it depended on sustainable management. Inspired by the example of the Tweed, Hughes co-founded the Westcountry Rivers Trust in 1993. In the years since his death, the Rivers Trusts have done important work around the world to mitigate and reverse the impacts of the agricultural and economic exploitation of rivers. What can Hughes’s example teach us about the limitations as well as benefits of today’s catchment-based approach?

The Weir Pool at Beam on the River Torridge — another of Hughes’s favourite pools. Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter was born here.

Losing the battle to save a river is also to risk the loss of everything the salmon has brought home to mankind for centuries wherever it has run: every kind of nourishment, physical, spiritual, cultural. We are inviting scholars of medieval Celtic and Norse writing, story tellers of the polar first nations, contemporary artists and poets and a phenomologist of the salmon  to share stories and images, ancient and modern. We need to keep our heads and bodies full of wild salmon if we are to help it endure: as Hughes observes, ‘What alters the imagination, alters everything’.

And never before has the salmon been in such need of our impassioned defence. In 1993 Hughes wrote of ‘the thousand perils’ it faced, from natural and human predators and degradation of their habitats: he wrote passionately about drift netting, water abstraction, agricultural run offs, intensive farming, salmon farms and the other obstacles we put in their paths, from weirs to surfactants. Three decades on, Climate change, shifting patterns of predation, the commercial exploitation of wild fish, the horrors of sea-lice contamination of wild genetic fishstocks by farm escapees have left us in no doubt as to its plight. We will be hearing from leading Norwegian and American fisheries scientists on aquaculture and the hopes of river restoration projects.

At stake is not just the salmon itself, as keystone species, and the health of the ecologies and species it sustains. It is also the question of our own relationship of with the natural world the salmon expresses so powerfully in all its fragile wonder.

Two closing sessions will focus, first, on the individual and spiritual benefits of fishing, and on the ways individual fisherman and women have needed to renegotiate their attitude to the king of fish over generations of declining fish stocks, and to justify fishing to themselves and others.

Finally, in a panel session chaired by the leading journalist and fisherman Jeremy Paxman, we look forward, both to the challenges of saving the salmon and its habitats and to the best ways of working together to inspire the next generation to join us before it is too late. In 1992, Hughes wrote, of a friend’s successful court case to protect water quality on a tributary of the river Exe, that he had given the salmon a voice. As the International Year of the Salmon draws to a close, how can we ensure that scientists, poets, conservationists, do the same, speak in concert and make others hear us on behalf of this silent hero?