When a crop problem exists, it affects all growers

By Garance Burke, June 10, 2008, Forbes.com – Fresno, CA – As tomatoes blush a deep red in farms and gardens throughout the country this week, growers are panicking that a 17-state salmonella outbreak linked to raw tomatoes could shrivel up their summer market.

On Tuesday, federal authorities cleared fresh tomatoes grown in Florida and California – the nation’s top two tomato-producing states – of any responsibility in the national food poisoning scare, which has sickened 167 people since April.

But farmers said the list of safe-to-eat varieties still isn’t enough to convince consumers that tomatoes are safe for salads and salsas, or to move their crops back on grocery shelves and restaurant menus.

“Even though our tomatoes are safe, we know consumers are going to stay away from our product this year,” said Jack King, the California Farm Bureau Federation’s national affairs manager. “The lesson we learned with the spinach E. coli outbreak is that regardless of where the problem exists, it affects all growers.”

Federal officials are still hunting for the source of the bacterial outbreak, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is linked to a rare strain called salmonella saintpaul.

A 67-year-old cancer patient in Texas who health officials said was sickened by salmonella at a Mexican restaurant is believed to be the first death associated with the scare.

Just three varieties – red plum, red Roma and round red tomatoes – are thought to have caused the illnesses.

Still, growers say the outbreak has affected peoples’ perceptions of all tomatoes, especially since major restaurant and grocery chains including McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and Burger King announced earlier this week they were withdrawing the three varieties from their shelves and menus unless they were grown in state and countries not linked to the scare.

The bulk of the nation’s tomatoes are grown in Florida, where harvest season is ending, and most workers have left to pick crops farther north.

The scare had already done significant economic damage to growers, grocers and restaurateurs, Florida Agriculture Department spokeswoman Liz Compton said.

If consumers stop buying tomatoes, the state’s tomato industry could lose more than $40 million, said Doug Archer, Associate Dean for the Institute of Food and Agricultural Science at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

And if the federal government takes weeks to uncover the source, those numbers could climb higher, industry experts warned.

“This is a nightmare for growers. This is right when their product should be coming to market, and everyone is saying don’t buy it,” said Jaydee Hanson, a policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, a Washington-based nonprofit. “The tragedy is that people will quit eating things that are safe because they’re worried.”

In San Diego County, where field crews are preparing to pick the Romas and vine-ripe tomatoes planted on bluffs above the Pacific Ocean, growers fear they won’t be able to unload their harvest, said Eric Larson, executive director of the county’s farm bureau.

Federal officials say cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached and homegrown tomatoes are likely not the source of the outbreak.

Also not associated with the salmonella outbreak are raw red Roma, red plum and round red tomatoes from Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Belgium, Canada, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Israel, Netherlands and Puerto Rico.

On Tuesday, a major Mexican tomato-growers’ association said U.S. importers had stopped buying their winter tomatoes.

The outbreak is hurting Mexican growers because they can’t sell their crops to U.S. buyers, said Mario Robles, a spokesman for the Sinaloa state Tomato Growers Association, which ships 44 percent of all Mexican tomatoes to the U.S. and Canada.

Instead, growers along Mexico’s Pacific Coast are rerouting their tomatoes to Mexican markets, where they will be sold at a lower price.

In Georgia, growers have seen a decline in tomato orders since Monday alone, said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.

In western North Carolina, tomato grower Melinda James said the outbreak hasn’t affected farmers yet, but she posted information from the Food and Drug Administration at her fruit stand to let customers know the Georgia-grown tomatoes she sells are safe.

Still, she says she wouldn’t order a tomato-based dish at a restaurant for fear of infection.

“If I were going to a chain, I would not eat tomatoes,” said James, president of the N.C. Tomato Growers Association. “I don’t think they have any idea where they come from.”

Salmonella, a bacteria that lives in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals, is usually transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with animal feces.

Most infected people suffer fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps starting 12 to 72 hours after infection.

In Fresno, where tomatoes grow in the flat lands below the Sierra Nevada mountains, industry leaders said they would distribute signs to grocery stores to assure customers that California-grown tomatoes posed no danger.

“Farmers are committed to ensuring the field-grown tomatoes we produce are always safe to eat,” said Ed Beckman, president of the California Tomato Farmers, a grower-owned cooperative that represents about 80 percent of the fresh tomatoes grown in the state. “Simply stated, our livelihoods depend on it.”

Associated Press Writers Harry Weber in Atlanta, Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami, Olga Rodriguez in Mexico City and Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, N.C. contributed to this report.


Montreal – The New York Times

The first Chinook salmon from Alaska’s Copper River arrived in Seattle last month, for shipment to fish counters throughout the country.

With the commercial chinook season in California and most of Oregon canceled for the first time in 160 years, Alaska chinook were going for record prices: $40 a pound for fillet.

Salmon — so low in saturated fats, so high in brain-protective omega-3 fatty acids — that rarest of commodities: a guilt-free, heart-healthy self-indulgence, and one of the cleanest forms of protein around……Wild Atlantic salmon are commercially extinct, and runs of Pacific salmon, south of the Alaska panhandle are experiencing catastrophic collapses.

What happened to the mighty chinook of the Pacific Northwest? Regional fisheries officials have blamed ocean conditions for a temporary decline in the plankton and small fish that juvenile salmon feed on. But most of the problem is man-made.

Spawning salmon need gravel streambeds and cold, fast-running water to lay their eggs. Giant pumps have been piping water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to towns and farms in California’s Central Valley, degrading river habitat and even sucking up young fish before they reach the sea. Farther north, dams on the Snake River have prevented egg-bearing fish from reaching streambeds inland.

Overfishing is also a factor; too many nets have been scooping up too many fish for too long. What’s more, higher water temperatures brought on by global warming prevent the eggs of spawning females from maturing. It’s not surprising that the only consistently healthy salmon runs left are those in the cold waters of Alaska.

The fact that salmon is still available in supermarkets, and is cheaper than it ever was, is no comfort. Ninety percent of the fresh salmon consumed in the United States is from farms, and many believe that the farmed product is not a healthy alternative to wild.

Three Norwegian-owned companies dominate the salmon-farming industry in North America, and their offshore net-cages dot long stretches of the west coast of the Americas. In Chile, overcrowding in these oceanic feedlots led to this year’s epidemic of infectious salmon anemia, a disease that has killed millions of fish and left the flesh of survivors riddled with lesions.

The situation in Canada, which supplies the United States with 40 percent of its farmed salmon, is not much better. In British Columbia, offshore net-cages are breeding grounds for thumbtack-sized parasites called sea lice. In the Broughton Archipelago, a jigsaw of islands off the province’s central coast, wild pink salmon are infested with the crustaceans. Scientists think that the tens of millions of salmon in Broughton’s 27 Norwegian-owned farms are attracting sea lice and passing them on to wild fish, killing them. They say that this infestation could drive Broughton’s pink salmon to extinction by 2011.

To rid salmon of the lice, fish farmers spike their feed with a strong pesticide called emamectin benzoate, which when administered to rats and dogs causes tremors, spinal deterioration and muscle atrophy. The United States Food and Drug Administration, already hard-pressed to inspect imported Asian seafood for antibiotic and fungicide residues, does not test imported salmon for emamectin benzoate. In other words, the farmed salmon in nearly every American supermarket may contain this pesticide, which on land is used to rid diseased trees of pine beetles. Is this a substance we want in our bodies?

Many avoid farmed salmon for other reasons. It takes four pounds of small fish like sardines and anchovies to make a single pound of farmed salmon, a process that deprives humans of precious protein.

(Feedmakers have lately increased the proportion of soy in the pellets, which means the fish have even lower levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.) Organic farmed salmon would be a good option, if the term meant something — outside Europe, there is still no credible, widely available eco-label for responsibly raised farmed salmon.

Fish farming is an essential industry, but it must be sustainable. Striped bass, trout, Arctic char and even ocean species like halibut and cod are already being raised in concrete tanks, which prevent the transmission of disease and parasites to wild fish. A few pioneering companies have started raising salmon the same way. Such techniques have to become the industry norm.

In the Atlantic, overfishing, habitat destruction, disease and parasites from farms have left only struggling remnant populations of the ocean’s original salmon stocks. If we don’t want the same thing to happen in the Pacific, we need to give the salmon a break. Legislators could start by calling on companies to remove net-cages from migration routes, dismantling superannuated dams, reducing fishing quotas in rivers and oceans and committing money to habitat restoration. Consumers can help by looking at salmon as an occasional luxury, rather than expecting it as an alternative to chicken or beef in in-flight meals.

If our hankering for salmon gets the better of us, we could eat wild salmon from Alaska. The state does not permit salmon farms in its coastal waters, and its cold rivers still teem with healthy salmon runs. But as much as we’d enjoy a fresh Chinook fillet from the Copper River, at $2.50 an ounce this summer, most can’t afford it.

Hopefully, by next year, the West Coast fisheries will show signs of recovery.


Chinook Salmon
Oncorhynchus tshawytscha

The Chinook Salmon, also known as King Salmon, is a species of anadromous fish in the salmon family. An anadromous fish regularly lives in the sea, but will migrate to freshwater to breed. It is a Pacific Ocean salmon, but has been introduced to many other bodies of water throughout the world, including the Great Lakes.

The Chinook salmon is blue-green on the back and top of the head with silvery sides and white underneath. It has black spots on its tail and the upper half of its body; its mouth is a dark gray. Adult fish average 33 to 36 inches (840 to 910 mm), but may be up to 58 inches (1.47 metres) in length; they average 10 to 50 pounds (5 to 25 kg), but may reach 130 pounds (50 kg).

Chinook salmon may spend between one to eight years in the ocean before returning to their home rivers to spawn, though the average is three to four years. Chinook prefer larger and deeper water to spawn in than other species of salmon and can be found on the spawning area from September through to December. Young fish usually stay in freshwater from twelve to eighteen months before traveling downstream to estuaries, where they remain for several months.

Chinook salmon range from San Francisco Bay in California to north of the Bering Strait in Alaska and the arctic waters of Canada and Russia. Populations occur in Asia as far south as the islands of Japan. Fresh water populations have also been introduced into the Great Lakes.

Chinook were the first Pacific salmon to be transplanted to other parts of the world, but the only notable success in creating self-sustaining stocks has been in New Zealand. A key factor in this general failure was that, like other Pacific salmon, Chinook salmon seek the stream of their birth to spawn and die. They have apparently failed to find the right kind of spawning streams along Lake Michigan, so continuous stocking is necessary to maintain the Chinook as one of the lake’s most prized game fish.

Why do you think people wanted to introduce Chinook Salmon to the Great Lakes?

CANADA – A new book, Who Killed the Grand Banks, raises the alarm over the state of wild Pacific Salmon stocks.

Vancouver author Alex Rose devotes several chapters to a crisis that’s devastating the coast from California all the way up to Vancouver – up the Strait of Georgia and beyond.

Rose warns that the fish simply aren’t swimming back in the hoped-for numbers and the shortages are historic. Unless things change, he predicts wild salmon stocks such as the magnificent chinook and coho could be decimated to near extinction.

Unconvinced? Consider the following: the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has told 94 native bands that they will have to ration their catch of Fraser River sockeye this year. The commercial sockeye fishery won’t likely happen this year on the Fraser, either.

“It breaks my heart to report this,” Rose says, “But after two years of interviewing the world’s fisheries experts, I believe we’re at the tipping point. The Pacific salmon fishery may very well go the way of the Grand Banks cod. When I started to write the book, I had hoped I would never have to draw that conclusion.”

“But there are so many eerie and ominous parallels,” says Rose. A generation ago, there were so many salmon to be had in Vancouver’s English Bay there was an annual salmon derby. “You know, the City of Vancouver even put salmon on its first coat of arms. But in a generation we’ve gone from unbelievable abundance to a crisis. We take our salmon for granted.”

Rose points out the value of the landed catch of wild West Coast salmon; once one of B.C.’s major industries, it has decreased to $60 million. There’s clearly something drastic happening. Who Killed the Grand Banks is a clarion call to refocus on the salmon, often regarded as an indicator species because of their unique life cycle and unique geographic reach: they are born in rivers, go to the ocean for years and return to the same riverbed where they were hatched to spawn to die. In essence, the salmon are barometers of the health of both the ocean and our rivers.

Hard-hitting and provocative, the new book harshly criticizes the much-loved hatchery program of the Department of Fisheries & Oceans’ Salmon Enhancement Program. In one chapter, he slams DFO as “an agency that couldn’t manage a home aquarium.”

While researching the book, Rose says, he moved from incredulity to outrage as he uncovered the true story of who is responsible for catastrophic pillaging of the Grand Banks cod, once one of the Great Natural Wonders of the world. In three chapters on

Pacific salmon he warns, this ecological collapse may well happen on Canada’s West Coast. Indeed, is already well underway.

The state of Pacific salmon is another alarm bell for us today, signaling environmental and ecosystem destruction. He believes that hatchery programs here on West Coast have been an overall failure because the “man-made” fish go out to sea and compete against wild stocks for food. In many cases, the hatchery fish never make it back anyway. “We must never allow Pacific salmon to go the way of the Grand Banks cod” he says.

“By nature I’m not a doom-and-gloom person,” Rose says. “And I reject absolutely melodrama and apocalyptic thinking. But, after two years of research, I can see a day when there are no wild salmon left in the Strait of Georgia. And that day is closer than we might think.”

In the book, Roses summarizes the ideas of Daniel Pauly and Peter Pearse, two “wise men” who live in Vancouver. Internationally respected, they say only new ideas can save the wild salmon resource.

The statistics are in and they are grim, particularly for the Strait of Georgia. In 1988, sports fishermen hooked a remarkable one million coho salmon. By the turn of the century, that catch had plummeted to about 10,000 fish. That’s starting to look like a collapse.

The author’s takeaway message: several species of Pacific wild salmon are in catastrophic decline. And so are we if we don’t do more to save this coast’s iconic symbol — a fish that sustains our grizzly bears, bald eagles, killer whales and, if you think about it, our culture.

Alex Rose is a Vancouver-based writer and journalist. An earlier book, Nisga’a: People of the Nass River won the Roderick Haig-Brown B.C. Book Prize. His essay, In Search of Meaning, was shortlisted for Canada’s 2005 National Magazine Awards.

Sockeye Salmon
Oncorhynchus nerka

Sockeye salmon en route to their spawning grounds
Photograph by Peter Essick

Sockeye Salmon Profile

The name sockeye comes from a poor attempt to translate the word suk-kegh from British Columbia’s native Coast Salish language. Suk-kegh means red fish.

The sockeye, also called red or blueback salmon, is among the smaller of the seven Pacific salmon species, but their succulent, bright-orange meat is prized above all others. They range in size from 24 to 33 inches (60 to 84 centimeters) in length and weigh between 5 and 15 pounds (2.3 to 7 kilograms).

Like all other Pacific salmon, they are born in fresh water. However, sockeye require a lake nearby to rear in. Once hatched, juvenile sockeyes will stay in their natal habitat for up to three years, more than any other salmon. They then journey out to sea, where they grow rapidly, feeding mainly on zooplankton. They stay in the ocean for one to four years.

Sea-going sockeyes have silver flanks with black speckles and a bluish top, giving them their “blueback” name. However, as they return upriver to their spawning grounds, their bodies turn bright red and their heads take on a greenish color. Breeding-age males have a distinctive look, developing a humped back and hooked jaws filled with tiny, easily visible teeth. Males and females both die within a few weeks after spawning.

Sockeyes are the third most abundant of the species of Pacific salmons and are a keystone in the North American commercial fisheries.


Twelve hundred miles (1,900 kilometers) from its source in the Canadian Rockies, the Columbia River flows past the once thriving fishing port of Astoria, Oregon, and empties into the Pacific Ocean. It was at Astoria in the late 1800s that the first great blow to salmon was dealt, when commercial fishermen hauled out as much as 43 million pounds (20 million kilograms) of salmon and steelhead a year. The commercial catch declined to the still sizable level of 25 million pounds (11 million kilograms) a year in the 1930s, before the dambuilding boom. Today the catch is around one to two million pounds (500,000 to 900,000 kilograms) a year. Fishing-industry representatives claim that at least 10,000 jobs on the Columbia have been lost because of the decline of salmon. Steve Fick of Astoria has witnessed the decline. A stout bespectacled man with brown hair, he has been a commercial fisherman for most of his 43 years. He owns one of the four fish-processing plants on the lower Columbia River that still handle salmon, down from two dozen canneries early in the 20th century.

On a cool, overcast day I went fishing with him just off Astoria, a picturesque stretch where a graceful green bridge arches over the river from Astoria to Megler on the hilly, heavily wooded Washington shore. Taking advantage of one of the limited periods when the Columbia is open to commercial fishing, Fick chugged out of Astoria’s harbor in his 24-foot (7-meter) aluminum boat, passing the rotting pilings of old salmon canneries, one of which used to employ his father as chief electrician. As we moved into the river, Fick said, “I worked in a cannery and made plenty of money, enough to go to college. And there were a hundred guys like me in Astoria. You just don’t make that kind of money working at McDonald’s. There were so many opportunities here, a chance to choose your own path in life. And that’s all been taken away from us.” Working as a commercial fisherman in the mid-1980s, he experienced the last big catches on the river, when the harvest—for four brief years—was ten times what it is today. We talked as he payed out 500 yards (450 meters) of nylon net from a five-foot-high (1.5-meter-high) aluminum spool. “My primary income is from fish processing, but I’m an old dog with bad habits, and I still fish,” he told me. “Fishing is not just a buck for us. It’s a way of life. This is a very important part of our culture.”

The greatest benefit to the Pacific Northwest, he said, would come if the Snake dams were breached, workers and farmers compensated, and Idaho salmon given a chance to rebound. When I asked if he was sure dams were the chief culprit in the downward spiral of Columbia and Snake River salmon, he replied, “Why did fishing not really go down until you started throwing chunks of concrete in the river? Tell me that.”

Feeding Frenzy
Photograph by Jim Richardson

Young salmon smolts swarm the surface of the long pools at the Bonneville hatchery during feeding time, when workers toss processed fish into the concrete tanks. Critics contend that the method conditions the young fish to look for food close to the surface where they become easy prey for seagulls and other predators, which eat millions of the carefully reared smolts each year. While hatchery fish are popular with fishermen because they help sustain high harvest levels, they also compete with wild fish for food and habitat and can mask wild fish declines.