Choosing a book title is as tricky as a three-year-old. The title is the first thing a potential reader sees, so it should be catchy and provocative—but not too provocative.
A few years ago, we disagreed on the title for our book about A. Q. Khan, the rogue scientist who was the father of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Doug and the editor settled on The Nuclear Jihadist. Catherine felt “jihadist” was too loaded and off-putting. Sure enough, questions about the title came up repeatedly in interviews about the book (whose tittle was changed to The Man From Pakistan for its paperback publication).
When it came to our latest collaboration, however, we both agreed that Salmon Wars perfectly captured the high-stakes conflict between the industrialization of salmon and the industry’s impact on the environment and our health. The salmon-farming industry was our version of Big Tobacco.
Ninety percent of the salmon consumed in North America today is Atlantic salmon that was raised in floating feedlots holding as many as a million fish in cages suspended along fragile coastlines of the United States, Canada, Norway, Scotland, and elsewhere, often close to the migration routes the wild fish take to the waters off Greenland. As salmon farming has expanded into a $20 billion–a–year business, so have concerns grown about its effects on the environment, marine life, and consumer health.
There is some risk to using a provocative title, even if it is just a working title. Early on, we e-mailed the head of communications at Mowi ASA, the Norwegian company that dominates global salmon farming. We introduced ourselves and tossed out a few broad questions to start a dialogue. He was skeptical, singling out the title and asking why we had chosen it.
We assured him that we were at the early stages of our research, open-minded, and eager to talk to Mowi. But we defended Salmon Wars as an accurate reflection of the turmoil surrounding the industry.
We outlined questions in our e-mail to Mowi about salmon farming’s effects on the environment, the declining stocks of wild salmon, and how the industry fights the spread of disease and parasites using chemicals and antibiotics. We asked them about the risks those chemicals pose to human health, particularly to young children and pregnant women. We asked about how the industry’s use of feed made from other wild fish contributes to the decimation of fishing stocks off the coast of West Africa.
As salmon farming has expanded into a $20 billion–a–year business, so have concerns grown about its effects on the environment, marine life, and consumer health.
We also asked about how the industry was looking to the future and evolving to fulfill its stated goal of fulfilling the global need for more protein, while addressing these emerging concerns.
The Mowi communications director was not impressed. He chose not to respond to any further e-mails. The reaction was similar from communications people at other multi-national salmon-farming corporations.
Interestingly, Norway has become a global leader in the regulation of ocean-based salmon farms through high licensing fees; a “green light” system to monitor sea lice; the support of new technologies, such as land-based farms; and the funding of research into alternative fish feeds. But Mowi, like many of the old guard, has chosen to move its business to locations such as Canada and Chile, where regulations are weaker.
As our research progressed, we found that the industry prefers to communicate on its own terms, through deceptive advertising, and with scientists and academics on its payroll who tout the benefits of farmed salmon and try to discredit independent scientists and other critics. Echoes of the oil and tobacco industries were strong.
What we discovered after two years of reporting was that Salmon Wars was exactly the right title.
Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz are the authors of Fallout: The Story of the C.I.A.’s Secret War on Nuclear Trafficking. Their new book, Salmon Wars: The Dark Underbelly of Our Favorite Fish, will be published on July 12 by Henry Holt