Artifishal is a film about people, rivers, and the fight for the future of wild fish and the environment that supports them. It explores wild salmon’s slide toward extinction, threats posed by fish hatcheries and fish farms, and our continued loss of faith in nature. Check out the interview below with the director.
Meet Josh “Bones” Murphy, fish biologist turned professional skier turned filmmaker and, now, the director behind Patagonia’s groundbreaking new film, Artifishal. Co-founder of his own production company, Liars and Thieves, Josh is a passionate environmentalist who has shaken the outdoor world with his new film. Fortunately, Flylords had the opportunity to pick his brain about what went into making Artifishal and what he learned from the experience.
Flylords: Who is Josh Murphy?
Josh: Haha, I ask myself that every day. I am a filmmaker, environmentalist and outdoors person. I’ve been enthralled with water since my earliest memories. I fell in love with water at a young age and it dictated so much of my life, whether that has been growing up fishing or sailing or skiing. So much of where I have put my effort has revolved, one way or another, around water. Jacques Cousteau was my idol; when I was a kid, I was either going to be a professional hockey player or Jacques Cousteau. Well, I only hit 5’6” and 145lb so I never quite made the bruiser status. So, I went into science because I thought that’s what Cousteau was, a scientist. For me, that was studying all the things in the underwater world and the environment. I did my undergrad at UVM and a fisheries biology masters at Humboldt State. I left after one year of working with the Tahoe Conservancy to pursue this other passion that I had which was filmmaking – something that I had always wanted to do but had never really had the opportunity to do it fully.
During a stint as a professional skier, Murphy dove into the world of action sports filmmaking. After early success, he quit his job and became a filmmaker. Through years of experience and producing The River Why and 2016 Tribeca Film Festival winner, Here Alone, Murphy found himself exactly where he needed to be:
Filmmaking is what I always wanted to do, I just didn’t think that you actually got to do it. Eventually, it worked enough that I got the opportunity to make another film and another one and another one. That’s what I did for 6 years, make action sports films. During that process, I realized, if you really think back at who Cousteau was, his real legacy was filmmaking. He was much more a storyteller than he was a scientist. I have no idea how I got here, other than… what I like to say… the gift of grit. It’s where you never give up and you keep finding new ways. You constantly challenge and ask yourself “Is this the best way forward?” Sometimes it isn’t and you find a new way, and then sometimes it is and you embrace that way.
Flylords: Tell us about where the idea for this film started
Josh: Well, I started doing a piece for 1% for the Planet where I got the chance to work with Yvon Chouinard. I worked with him on this project and then over lunch one day someone asked Yvon what Patagonia’s next film was and he said, “Well, it’s a film about the arrogance of man.” I remember thinking, “Well, that’s a beautiful Yvon-ism, but where is he going to go with this one?” And he said, “It’s about the way we are un-wilding salmon through hatcheries and fish farms.” I remember asking myself, “Did he just say that?” So, on the back of a pickup truck in Ennis, Montana, we started talking about my background in film and fisheries and just kind of sharing ideas. At the end of the day, he asked me for my number and I gave him my number and he said, “I’ll call yah” and I said “Okay.” Two days later, thinking he’d never call, his producer called me and said, “Do you want to make the movie?” I remember very clearly thinking, “Oh you bet, but what is it?” That kind of led me to right now.
Flylords: What is Artifishal?
Josh: Artifishal is really a film about a story we told ourselves some time ago that we got horribly wrong. Carl Safina, in the film, says it very clearly: you could say everything we learned, we learned from the stories that are passed down to us but you could also say that all the problems in the world come from stories that we got wrong and stories that we misunderstood deeply. I think that is the truth. We see that again and again in human behavior which is that the power of the narrative becomes more important than the power of science and fact behind it. We see this with climate change: the science is totally clear but the power of people to spin false narratives that then get believed by other people is phenomenal. That’s because humans are story tellers at their core. Artifishal is re-writing that story: when we degraded the environment to a point where the rivers couldn’t support fish populations anymore, instead of addressing the disease, which was degradation, we instead addressed the symptom which was lack of fish. So, by simply filling the rivers with fish, it made people happy enough that they didn’t have to be concerned about the real gaping wound that was at hand.
We didn’t use this line in the film, but Gary Matthews explains it’s much like if someone walked into an emergency room and they are bleeding from multiple stab wounds and the first thing a doctor does is say, “Quick lets hook him up to a blood transfusion.” Then, once blood is running into him they say, “Hey you’re fine.” And the guy looks down and says, “But hey I’m still bleeding look at all this blood coming out.” And they say, “No don’t worry, you’ve got plenty of blood in you. Blood is the problem, blood loss, we’ll just put more blood in you.” As opposed to saying, “Stop the bleeding” and address the cause which is the wound. Then, you wouldn’t have to put so much blood in. The same thing goes for what we’re doing here. We’re trying our best to find a solution that doesn’t force us to make hard decisions about the future of not only wild fish and wild life, but also clean water and functioning river ecosystems.
So, I think that if Artifishal does one thing, it brings people back to the recognition that environments that support wild fish are normally very clean, functional environments. Fish function as a canary in a coal mine. But, when we recognize that the canary is dying, the normal response is retreat from the coal mine. In our case, as the fish were dying, instead of retreating, we just put more fish into the bird cage and continued. I think that’s where we have to now unwind the basis of that story and get back to saying, “What does science tell us and what’s the future?” because what’s working now is not going to work forever. Hopefully, this film creates an opportunity for people to begin a dialogue about the importance of wild things in general and specifically wild fish.
Flylords: Fish farms and hatcheries don’t come up often in conversations, what did you learn about them?
Josh: I had a base knowledge of this going into it, but I did not know anything, nothing, about the extent of fish farms. For example, on the hatchery side, I had no idea that the single biggest owner of feed lots in the country at raising fish are our federal and state governments. There are 1.8 billion fish released by the state of Alaska this past year, 1.8 billion… that is a huge number. That was surprising to me, but also the fact that hatcheries actually led to the further degradation of our rivers. When dams were proposed and people knew very clearly that it was going to wipe out anadromous fish, they said, “It’s okay we’ve got a hatchery.” Were it not for this belief in hatchery management, people would have said, “No way you’re going to do that. You are not going to destroy our rivers.” People would have been up in arms. To this day we see this happening, for example, on the Elwha river. When they built the Elwha dams they did so illegally because in Washington law you couldn’t block fish passage. As a result, the “fine”, so to speak, was to build a hatchery. And when they removed the Elwha dams, primarily for the benefit of wild fish, what do they do? Build a hatchery. I said to myself, “You have got to be kidding me.” Now, we’re watching it on the Klamath – they built the dams, put in a hatchery. Now they’re looking at removing the dams and they have to have an agreement to put in a hatchery. It’s ridiculous to me. If the hatchery was mitigating the impacts of the dam, when you remove the dam, what is it mitigating? Greed, it’s greed. That’s it. Because people think they should be given the opportunity through taxpayer dollars to catch more and take more. It’s greed, that’s all it is. And that’s what I didn’t know.
On the fish farm side, I didn’t recognize that, at face value, it sounds great. In some places, it can be – when it’s done well and right. But what I didn’t realize, was how much those domesticated fish were escaping and interbreeding with wild fish and degrading genetics. Furthermore, I didn’t realize that even in places like net pens in open water where it was being relentlessly locked down to make sure that no fish ever got out, no pollution entered the system, it’s still problematic. It’s problematic because we are harvesting wild fish like anchovies to feed to farmed fish. So, we are degrading, to some extent, wild ecosystems to feed domesticated fish. That makes me scratch my head and ask, “Well how long is that going to work?” At what point do we just crash whole ecosystems gathering food to feed to farmed fish? People say we need to feed the world. I say the world is not getting fed with salmon that are being fed wild anchovies. We have to think about it like this – asking, “What are these global systems that are at play?” Not just who can pay 17 bucks a pound for farmed salmon. You’re losing the battle if you’re thinking only that small.
Flylords: Why do wild things and, specifically, wild fish, matter?
Josh: Well, I think one has to say why is there inherently an interest in shows like Blue Planet and Planet Earth? Also, why do we watch these nature shows over and over and over again? I can tell you. It’s because, deep down, people feel a connection to wildness. They recognize that while humans may not be wild, we still are part of a world that is beyond our control. If we believe that we can control every part of the world, we are fooling ourselves. So, I think wild matters in part because it’s a recognition of the extent to which humans are playing an outsizeable roll in the world. When you look at a wild animal, I think there is awe because you recognize that we are compatriots on this planet. As opposed to us subjugating everything else on this planet. I think we have to say, “Where is the fine line of where humans end, and all other things begin?” This is a philosophic question as much as it is a tangible, physical question. Wild matters because we begin to recognize that there are other things that are important on this world apart from us.
That’s one level. However, if you look at it from a utilitarian level, wild fish are the last wild food we eat at scale, period. There is no other wild thing that we eat that feeds billions of people a day. The major source of protein around the world, in many places, is wild fish. If we think we are going to farm our way out of that problem and make up for how wild systems are failing, I think we’re fooling ourselves because you’re taking from one to give to the other. Aquaculture is wonderful, but not when it further degrades wild things.
We have to ask ourselves, “What is the future? And, how important are wild things for us to embrace?” Because of our outsizable impact, it’s up to humans to decide what kind of world we want. Do we want a world with wild things or not? That has to be something that we do willingly if we are going to protect them.
Flylords: What was one moment in the filmmaking process that had the greatest impact on you?
Josh: To me, the most impactful part of the film is when we see the Native American community that we followed so closely, the Yurok people, their connection specifically to wild salmon and what it has done for them since the beginning of time, as they would say. To me, that’s the place that we feel it the most.
But, the place that was the biggest gut punch to me, was the scene where we see the block of frozen hatchery fish dropped from a forklift. Then, those fish were given to children to throw back into the river to provide nutrients for the river (which used to be done all by wild fish and now can’t be done by wild fish). It can’t be done in part because we haven’t allowed wild fish to flourish. So, all that’s left in the river are hatchery fish and they don’t go past the hatchery which is not in the headwaters where the spawning is. As a result, they take the hatchery fish and walk them, drive them and drop them into the headwaters to provide nutrients instead. To me, I said to myself, that is it, that is the problem right there – indoctrinating children to say that you are helping when you are very clearly not addressing the bigger problem. The bigger problem being that it is completely messed up that we have to break apart frozen salmon with a forklift and hand them to children. That was the place where I was realized, “This is an absurdity that cannot be overlooked.” I recognize that the people running that program are doing so with the very best intentions — to teach children that we have to be stewards of the river. Unfortunately, the way they are teaching them, if you step back just a little bit from the issue, is just beyond absurd. In that moment, we recognized this encapsulated the whole issue which is that this process used to be done by nature, in the wild. Now look at what we’ve done to it.
Flylords: Can you name one piece of advice you would give to this next generation when it comes to our environment?
Josh: Get out there and experience it because you can’t love it unless you’ve experienced it… just be outside. Be in places that are wild or less developed and see the impact it has on you. Then, do something about it. As a filmmaker I want you to feel something from this film, but as an activist, I want you to do something. One of the things I would point as an example, is group in Oregon. This group is affiliated with the Native Fish Society and they take kids snorkeling and they show them what wild fish look like. How often have we put our faces into rivers and actually looked around? Surprisingly little. In fact, most of the education kids get about fish normally involves some sort of hatchery – the school takes them to a production facility and shows them what a fish hatchery looks like and they say, “Hey this is great.” In this group’s case, they actually put them in the river and say, “Look down” and the kids just light up. Then, you’ll take them in the afternoon to a local hatchery and show them that place. Most of these kids had never put their face in the water and certainly hadn’t seen a hatchery and it’s amazing to see the impact on them. They say, “why are these fish here, in this concrete, when we just saw them out there?” I think there is something to be said with that. Fishing is a way that people connect with fish, but just looking at fish, whether through mask and snorkel or through binoculars in a pool, is impactful. There’s plenty of ways to connect with fish that don’t require catching or killing. That’s coming from me, I’m a fisherman too, I love to fish. At the same time, I also realize there are other ways to interact with fish and feel a connection and I think that’s what we have to foster.
Flylords: What drives you to make films?
Josh: I think what drives me to make documentary films is to tell stories that confront peoples’ belief systems. I think when we are confronted with our belief systems then we come away saying, “Well, why are we doing it? That makes no sense.” We just get so conditioned into the things we do out of ease or because of the narrative we’ve been told but we don’t question it. Sometimes it takes a film like this to question it. That’s what film gives us the chance to do – reconsider something that we had not thought of before.
For narrative film, which I hope to do more of as well, it is the opportunity to view a story or a character in a way that we may not have considered before but that impacts us. Where we come away saying, “I felt moved by their experience and now I have a new perspective on my own life.” I think that is what film should do, it should transport us to a place where we’re left kind of scarred by what we’ve seen and felt. Then, you can go back to that scar many years later and still have that sensation and say, “Yeah, when I watched that it changed something in me for good.” That’s what I’d love to continue to do.
Flylords: If people wanted to get involved with conservation efforts or make a change, what steps can they take?
Josh: The first thing is to certainly make changes in your own life and explain to people why you’re doing it. Whether that’s rejecting all plastics, protecting landscapes or water, tell people why it’s important. Tell that story, make your story and your commitment known so that other people can be inspired by that. Specifically with what we talked about in Artifishal, I think that if you’re interested in issues about rivers and water, reach out and touch your local water. Find out what you can do in your backyard and a place that you love – a river, a creek, a stream. Say, “how can I assist? What groups are out there working on these issues that I can join in?” Do this in a place that you can touch, in a place that impacts you daily. That way, when you walk, drive or bike past that river or stream you say, “I’m looking out for you.”
This interview was conducted by Flylords Media Intern Matteo Moretti.
Photographs courtesy of Ben Moon and Liz Seabrook.