When I first started putting together my Watson proposal, one of the challenges my university’s campus advisor put to me was to think of a project where traveling was absolutely essential. She asked me: What couldn’t be learned from the internet or in the United States? What kinds of “You just had to be there” experiences did I want to pursue during my Watson year? In my proposal, I wrote that aquaculture was too general to understand from a distance. If I was to engage with the complexity and nuance of specific aquaculture industries I had to “just be there”. Getting close to aquaculture and its local contexts, physically and mentally, has always been the central theme of my project.
Ironically, I’m finding that “getting close” is a mixed bag of experiences. Five months in, I find myself on an alpine king salmon farm, feeding, harvesting, bleeding, and gutting the fish; as close to salmon farming as I have ever been. It’s exciting, interesting, and, with regards to those initial questions, has opened up a variety of understandings and experiences that only came about because I am here. Regaining language in New Zealand has also helped amplify this sense of closeness. However, as I continue to spend time on the farm I’m learning that this sensation of proximity to my project and to aquaculture is not necessarily new, but just different. Past experiences where, in the moment, I felt quite distal from my project are coming back into focus with new understanding. I am coming to realize that moments I’ve previously overlooked did in fact help bring me closer to aquaculture. Which is to say that I’m learning that my proximity to my project is not an absolute. Just as local context informs diverse aquaculture industries, it also informs just exactly how my sensations of “proximity” look. Rather than saying that an individual experience is better or worse than others, I’m learning to appreciate them in concert with one another. Where one experience gives me physical proximity to aquaculture, another gives me mental proximity, and they have collectively helped me get close to aquaculture on their own terms.
Last week I was helping another farmer clean off the weedscreen, a net screen at the front of each raft that “catches” some of the weeds and algae and prevents them from entering the salmon pens. As we were pulling one of the screens out of the water he said “It’s important to pay attention to where the screen has a lot of built up weeds and where it looks relatively clean. These things can tell us if the net is rubbing against itself anywhere and where we might expect holes to form.” He went on to say that “Despite how closely we work with the salmon, we can never see everything that’s going on because it’s all beneath the surface.” Aside from actually entering into the glacial water (which hovers somewhere around a balmy 55 degrees Fahrenheit in summer), all of our understandings of the salmon, their behavior, and the nets, come from surface observations. If I think back to my first month in Thailand when I was on a Tilapia farm, this obstacle to proximity did not exist. The earthen ponds common throughout SE Asia were typically chest-deep and, in the humid tropical weather, it was easy enough to wade into them; to make physical observations from within the water. As another example, the tilapia cages were composed of a fine, lightweight blue mesh that could be easily maneuvered with a bamboo pole to raise the net from underneath. While the salmon cages operate on the same principle, a spreader bar underneath the pens is raised to bring them closer to the surface, it is significantly more difficult. Because of the weight of the nets (from a much sturdier rope combined with all the algal biomass that grows on it) as well as the flow of the water along the canal, the nets must by slowly winched up and then pulled up using long metal hooks. Raising the salmon cages is slow and significantly more strenuous than raising the tilapia cages.
Getting close to aquaculture in Thailand happened outside of language, and I was often frustrated by how little I felt I was absorbing on the farms. But the experience of just being on the tilapia farm where the ponds and cages were instantly accessible, has come into clearer focus now that I cannot (or will not) jump into the glacial waters feeding the salmon cages. During a conversation with the owner of the tilapia farm he said “It’s important to actually get into the water and wade around; it’s the only way you can actually get a sense of what’s going on with the fish” It’s ironic that where I was bereft of language I had the most physical accessibility to aquaculture production and where communication is instantaneous I’m only able to observe the fish from the surface of the water.
I’ll be on this salmon farm for about three more weeks, doing some final interviews and getting some more experience on the harvest team! After that things are a bit up in the air. If things work out as hoped, my future may involve more of the Marlborough Sounds and NZ greenshell mussels.
Wishing everyone back home a happy and safe new year,
P.S. Working on the water is not conducive to taking a lot of photos, but I’ve included a select few here. Enjoy!