'We're the bad guy': inside the shocking new film about wild fish

In Artifishal, an eye-opening new documentary, we see the damaging effect that humanity has had on the wild fish population, driving them closer to extinction

Artifishal, a new documentary about salmon, might, in less capable hands, have been a tiresome screed, another damning diary of how humans have despoiled the Earth.

In salmon’s case, we have interrupted one of the most dramatic cycles of nature, the wild fish’s journey from the rivers where they spawn to the oceans where they grow and back again. The result is that fish have died, species that eat them have died, communities that depend on them have faded, the food supply has been polluted and a lot of tax dollars have been wasted.

Artifishal, directed by Josh “Bones” Murphy and produced by Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia, does tell that story. But that story is only the embers of something more, which the film steadily exhales over, oxygenates and causes to flame up.

In an inspired gambit, Artifishal takes a swerve into the metaphyscial, framing the salmon emergency as a question about the human soul, about what it needs – about what we need – to survive. The contention of the film-makers is that while it may be human nature to seek dominion and control over the rest of nature, the very thing we need to survive is precisely that which defies our control, that thing which, when we seek to subjugate it, instead either slips through our nets, or is caught and dies.

If we drive the wild to extinction, the film suggests, we will bring our own that much closer.

“I really hope the film leaves the viewer with this disquieting question, which is, have we reached the end of wild?” said Murphy in a phone conversation near the end of a tour to promote the movie, which debuted at the Tribeca film festival after a tour of screenings in Patagonia stores.

“At the outset we kept wondering if we would find a bad guy. And we didn’t. In fact, I kept feeling that the force of antagonism was us – we’re the bad guy. Because humans just are always looking out for themselves.”

In exploring those themes, Artifishal becomes more than a movie about fish, or even about conservation. It’s a movie about what it means to be a creature uniquely capable of such soaring achievements of ingenuity and, at the same time, such aggressive and lethal idiocy.

Over the decades, we have interrupted salmon by draining rivers, damming rivers, settling riverbanks, overfishing streams and injecting billions of genetically inferior fish into the wild population.

We have done it, and continue to do it, for what seem like good reasons: dams provide power, fish provide food, and on a crowded planet, change is a reality. Plus, through the genius of human engineering, we have told ourselves, we are not really hurting the fish, or anything else: on some rivers, fish have been physically transported around dams so that they may pursue their genetic imperative to spawn; government-run hatcheries ensure that fish populations remain plentiful for anglers; and open-water net-pen fish farms fill the gap in demand for supermarket salmon.

Those justifications turn out to be every bit as self-serving and false as the casual observer of human nature would automatically expect them to be. Breeding fish in tanks does not create the same fish as those bred in streams; launching fish over dams still interrupts the breeding cycle; and a lot of the fish inside those net pens, as the film gruesomely illustrates, are visibly sick to the point of making the viewer wonder how we can eat this stuff.

The film encourages us to imagine the restoration of wild waterways – and, it is hoped, the fish they once hosted, and the networks of plant, animal and human life that used to center on wild salmon, including Native American communities.

A still from Artifishal
‘Wild is scary, but it’s a really important place in people’s soul.’ Photograph: Ben Moon

“Wilding does have great uncertainty to it,” says marine biologist Anne Shaffer in the film. “That’s how wild works. Wild is scary, but it’s a really important place in people’s soul.”

“You find out how much money we spend, the genetic implications, the community effects for people like the Yurok,” said Murphy, referring to the Native Americans who inhabit the Klamath River basin in northern California and southern Oregon. “Then that pile of information becomes additive towards this real understanding, that we have completely forgotten the value of wild in our rush to commoditize this animal.”

If you can’t catch Artifishal on its current tour of film festivals and in-store screenings, you can host a viewing yourself. It is the latest in a series of environmental initiatives mounted by Patagonia, which in 2017 organized efforts to protect the Bears Ears national monument in Utah and then sued the federal government over it.

In 2021, the largest river restoration effort in history is planned, with the removal of four hydroelectric dams built between 1911 and 1962 on the Klamath River. Removing the dams will dump millions of cubic yards of sediment downstream and destroy reservoirs that have been used for recreation while breeding toxic algae. Removing the dams will also open about 400 miles of habitat to the fish.

Nobody knows what will happen next.

  • Artifishal was showing at the Tribeca film festival and will be released later this year


Tom McCarthy

The GuardianTramp

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