Pacific Salmon Run
In this mini episode of Consolation Prize we complete our tour of the world by going to the last continent where the United States had consuls: Australia. Alexander George Webster was a consul in Hobart, a port city on the island of Tasmania, but he also served on the Tasmanian Fisheries Commission – a group that was very concerned with making sure that Tasmanian rivers were stocked full of fish. In this episode, we see how Webster used his position as consul to move salmon halfway around the world, from the rivers of California to the rivers of Tasmania.
MULLEN: I’m Abby Mullen, and this is Consolation Prize, a podcast about the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls. Over the course of the past two seasons, we’ve gone a lot of different places–to five continents, in fact! As you may have figured out, there are no consuls in Antarctica. So that leaves us just one continent untouched by our show: Australia. We couldn’t leave Australia out. So today we have a mini episode for you about a consul, an unlikely project, and…some fish.
MULLEN: Before we talk about the fish thing, I do want to tell you that there are only two full episodes of Consolation Prize left. After that, we’ll be shutting down the show. To celebrate the show, we’re doing a little giveaway. Here’s what you need to do: call into our voicemail, and tell us something that you’ve learned from Consolation Prize–about consuls, about podcasting, really anything you want to tell us about the show! You could win a tumbler and some free-trade Nicaraguan coffee. You can access our voicemail at consolationprize.rrchnm.org, or honestly if you just google “consolation prize podcast” it should come right up. You only have until June 10 to do it! So go to our website right now and leave us a voicemail.
MULLEN: OK, so the fish. Our story starts, as it often does, with a letter from a consul to the secretary of state.
MULLEN: The consul was Alexander George Webster. He was the US consul in Hobart, which is a major port city on the island of Tasmania. He was a British subject, but he served as U.S. consul for three decades starting in 1877. He was also a part of the Tasmanian Fisheries Commission. This commission was interested in bringing fish from elsewhere in the world to stock Tasmanian rivers and fish farms. They compared rivers without fish to pastures without sheep–not stocking the rivers would be tantamount to neglect.
MULLEN: Webster wanted salmon–specifically, Pacific salmon from the West Coast of the United States. So he did the natural thing for a consul to do. In January 1902, he wrote to the American secretary of state to ask him for some salmon eggs.
[fish splash sounds]
MULLEN: Webster noted that “all attempts” to introduce salmon into Australian waters had failed to this point. A government report documented attempts in 1852, 1860, 1862, 1866, and 1881. Many of the eggs in those attempts didn’t even make it to Australia. Those that did hatch didn’t last more than a few years in Australian waters. But those had been Atlantic salmon, from Great Britain. So Webster and his colleagues thought they should try Pacific salmon instead. But a shipment of 800,000 sockeye salmon eggs from Vancouver had not been successful either.
MULLEN: Despite these many failures, Webster thought they just hadn’t found the right type of salmon yet. So he asked the secretary of state, John Hay, to send 1.5 to 2 million more eggs to try again. Except this time, Webster wanted them to come from California waters–specifically, from the Baird Hatchery on the McCloud River.
MULLEN: You might think it was a bit of reach for Webster to ask the US state department for fish. But what is even more astonishing is that the state department granted his request! And actually it seems like the United States had been standing by, waiting for an opportunity like this. The Baird Hatchery was the first ever federal fish hatchery, and it had a section just for cultivating eggs for foreign shipment. Those were the eggs Webster wanted. And he got them–though not quite as many as he wanted. Between 1901 and 1910, the United States sent Tasmania 500,000 Quinnat salmon eggs.
MULLEN: With the salmon eggs on their way, let’s talk for a minute about how you transport salmon eggs halfway across the world. The short answer is: very carefully, and assuming you’re going to lose a lot. Most of the attempts I told you about earlier failed because the eggs couldn’t be kept cold enough, so they all died in transit. But by the 1880s, new techniques had been developed. You put your fish eggs in between layers of moss to keep them protected. Then you pack the moss-layered eggs into the ice house of a steamer, where you hope they’ll freeze. Then you send them off on their journey–about two weeks from California to Sydney. If you’re lucky, about 45% of the eggs might survive. You then put the eggs in the river, where they thaw out and hopefully hatch.
MULLEN: And this is where we end our Tasmanian salmon experiment: these salmon were stocked into rivers in Tasmania, and from there, they disappeared. Thirty years later, there were still no Pacific salmon in the rivers.
MULLEN: That wasn’t the end of Tasmania’s attempt to bring salmon to their waters. In the 1960s, Tasmanian fish farms finally made good. These days, Tasmanian salmon is considered some of the best farmed salmon in the world, and in fact, the industry is so successful that it’s causing some environmental problems. So Webster’s attempts did eventually pay off. And this story reminds us why it’s good to be a consul–not because it pays well. It doesn’t. Not because you have diplomatic powers. You don’t. But because you have a direct line to one of the highest ranking officials in the U.S. federal government–and sometimes you can use that direct line to benefit the things you care about. Like fish.
Producer: Abby Mullen and Kris Stinson
Music: Andrew Cote
Don’t forget to leave us a voicemail
Advances in Marine Biology. Academic Press, 1980.
“Baird Station: The First National Fish Hatchery,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce.
Tony Briscoe, “The rise and rise of Tasmania’s Atlantic salmon industry, from zero to a billion dollars in three decades,” ABC News, Australia.
Peter Chapman, “Alexander George Webster,” Australian Dictionary of Biography.
Royal Commission on the Fisheries of Tasmania; Report of the Commissioners. Tasmania: 1883.
Joseph Taylor, “Making a Panacea,” Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis (University of Washington Press, 1999).