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UBC Theses and Dissertations

In pursuit of wildness : genomic science, risk, and the production of wild salmon Berseth, Valerie


Pacific Salmon (Onchorhynchus, spp.) are a socially and ecologically significant group of species. Many populations have been experiencing significant declines in North America. To compensate for these losses, Canada and other Pacific countries artificially breed and release millions of salmon every year. The biggest question for those that produce and depend on salmon is whether these artificially produced salmon can be understood, classified, and made sufficiently “wild.” This dissertation draws on interviews with 147 people in salmon management (scientists, managers, hatchery staff, fishers, environmental organizations), document analysis, and 88 hours of participant observation to examine how people understand and pursue wildness in the context of Pacific salmon. I compare how hatchery salmon have been framed in policy debates in Canada and the United States. I find that scientific uncertainty about the wildness of hatchery fish facilitated political and legal contests between actors with differing social and ecological values and interests. As a result, hatchery fish have been defined differently over time and space. I also examine the biopolitics of wildness in the context of hatchery practices. Emerging genomic science has shown that hatchery rearing domesticates salmon and negatively impacts survival, not only for salmon in hatcheries but for wild populations as well. Hatcheries have responded by seeking to produce salmon that are genetically as wild as possible, ultimately reshaping salmon at multiple levels, from genes to species. Finally, I employ a material-semiotic analysis of risk perceptions related to the possibility of selectively breeding hatchery salmon for characteristics such as climate adaptation. While respondents expressed concerns about climate change, for most, the risks of humans intervening in nature outweighed possible benefits of producing climate resilient salmon. However, there was interest in selective breeding as a means of genetically rewilding hatchery salmon. This study shows that wildness continues to be meaningful in the Anthropocene, but the proliferation of genomic knowledge and technologies have expanded the meaning and management of wild life. Although Western conceptions of wildness have conventionally excluded humans, the case of Pacific salmon demonstrates that wildness is understood and pursued as material and molecular interactions between humans and other species.

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