Book club: ‘Being Salmon Being Human’ by Martin Lee Mueller

Encountering the Wild in Us and Us in the Wild

A book all about our alienation from nature and the intrinsic relationship between humans and salmon

Norwegian and Pacific Northwest salmon industries remain largely overlooked and Martin Lee Mueller cleverly weaves the stories of artificially inseminated and reared salmon to highlight the long-standing notion of human exceptionalism and creates a critique of the widespread idea that non-human animals are little more than machines, deprived of rich inner lives and feelings. Taking a philosophical spin on the matter, the author argues that the dogmas put forward by the likes of Descartes and Heidegger played a part in shaping our superiority complex and that for us to fully embrace being human, we must experience the intersection of understanding between ourselves and other beings. 

Using salmon and the salmon hatchery and fishery businesses as a case study, Mueller composes his narrative to imagine the world through the eyes of salmon. It’s a first-of-its-kind introspective effort at questioning our attitude towards fellow beings and deciphering why we regard ourselves higher in the hierarchy of life and what this is doing to our relationship with nature. Through this, he gets the reader to ponder his status on Earth and re-examine his self-perception and that of other beings who possess rich inner lives, experience emotions and share this planet with us, yet that we do not treat with equal respect. 

Fish farming helped Norway produce around 1.18 million metric tons of salmon last year

Alongside philosophical ponderings, ‘Being Salmon Being Human’ is primarily a story of being salmon. Drawing comparisons between farmed salmon and their wild counterparts, the book tells stories of the industry as well as dam removal on the Elwha River and the restoration of wild runs. As the book follows on from Mueller’s PhD, the ecology, life histories and biology of salmon are treated with knowledge and experience and the industry facts and individual case studies provided are backed up by novel research and landmark studies. Mueller notes that salmon can inspire people and with a growing interest in their conservation, the species is an ideal candidate for considering who we are and what we do to protect the wildlife and biodiversity around us. 

Combining the two – salmon and our “human-centred” story – Mueller delves into a comprehensive exploration of the ecological web we are in the process of disentangling as a result of our selfish ways and egocentric attitudes. Through this, he gives thought to the current environmental crisis, scientific findings relating to the matter and how to alter the journey to ecological destruction and extinction which we have embarked on. In getting his reader to consider his actions, perception of the natural world, and treatment of other animals, Mueller notes that salmon were cooperating, competing and simply living and dying, for millions of years before Homo sapiens stood in the limelight. By imagining ourselves as salmon, he hopes we can paradoxically learn more about being human. 

Pacific Sockeye salmon

In conclusion, ‘Being Salmon Being Human’ is relevant and represents a unique contribution to our fight for the planet’s survival, as well as our role in the ecosystem and how we treat the creatures we share the Earth with. It provides a unique blend of philosophical thought and ecological research which motivates the reader to consider himself in a wider ecosystem and food-chain context and to give thought to the exploitative processes we carry out on non-human animals. Considering all of this through the eyes of salmon provides a novel perspective through which the reader develops compassion and a deeper understanding of this family of fish that we are driving to the brink of extinction.

To all those interested in salmon, the cultural role it plays in many societies, the salmon industry, and for those wanting to self-reflect and consider the role we should be playing in shaping our planet, I would recommend this book wholeheartedly. 

This review is the seventeenth in our new Marine Madness Book Club! At the beginning of every month we will be releasing a new review of an ocean inspired book and encouraging you to let us know what you think in the comments and via social media. To find out more visit the Book Club page here.

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