Excerpt from an essay by Page Buono
Jen is reading when I arrive, a book held casually by her side when she steps out of the feed boat’s cabin. The boat, docked next to the salmon cage in the middle of the Dark Harbour pond, is roughly the size of an industrial dumpster. It is white with red trim tucked up against a turquoise hull. The cabin at the front of the boat is enclosed, while the back, like most fishing boats, is open to the air, and empty except for a metal tank that stores food for the salmon. She sets the book on the tank and boards the dory tied to the west side of the boat. Steering the outboard motor with one confident hand, she navigates the short distance between us, shielding her eyes from the sun with the other. The dory is small and traditional—hand built of oak, pine and cedar. I board and settle near the front. We shake hands and she gives me a life jacket. This salmon cage, the one where Jen works, is in Dark Harbour, and unlike any of the others around the island, it is stocked with wild salmon. But much like the others, it is corporately owned by Cooks Aquaculture.
Dark Harbour is on the northwest side of Grand Manan, an island in the Bay of Fundy. Salmon cages are scattered just off shore around the island, many in the place where herring weirs used to be, some alongside weirs that have fallen into disrepair since the herring stopped coming. Most of the cages are on the east side, where they are protected by other islands in the archipelago. The Dark Harbour pond is protected by a natural sea wall nearly 8’ feet high, and its waters are calm and shallow. Perched on the sea wall, a couple of shingled cottages, some still in use, others abandoned, are joined by buoys and lobster cages that washed up during flood tide and storms. Silver driftwood wedges its way into rounded stones, deep grey in color. We stand on the boat next to the salmon cage, almost equidistance between the wall and the shore where our cars are parked. The cage itself is 70 meters in diameter and split into quadrants by a narrow network of docks. A black tube, reminiscent of a bike tube and nearly 100 times the size, floats above the surface, providing structure for the nets that reach 8’ below, forming a purse around the salmon. Above the tube that sits on the water’s surface is another, held up by stilts that extend between the two, and covered in red nets designed to prohibit fish from jumping out, seals and gulls from getting in. This cage holds only about 2,200 hundred fish. Cages holding the farmed salmon measure approximately 100 meters in diameter and hold more than 10 times as many.
The fish in this cage are wild, though “wild” here belongs in quotations. It’s hard to apply a term like that to thousands of fish swimming about a netted circle, even though they’re more closely related genetically to the wild salmon—that who still swim the rivers where they were captured as roe—than they are to their lab-raised compatriots just on the other side of the sea wall. Despite the constraints, the fish are jumping now, not in unison, but at a strangely constant rate, as if abiding by the ticking of some underwater clock. These juvenile salmon, or smolt, swim to the edge of the cage and then, picking up as much speed as they can, leap out of the water, landing close to the other side. They hurl their young bodies with so much force, sometimes rising as much as a foot above the surface, sometimes even bumping the net that’s pulled taut over their heads. They’re practicing. In the wild this is a skill they will need to travel upstream. It’s a skill they’re determined to develop, despite close quarters. It’s a skill the processed salmon in the other cages around the island practice as well, though they will assuredly never use it.