Wild salmon from the Copper River is as much a part of our culinary heritage as Thanksgiving turkey and a lot easier to prepare. Remains of grilled salmon were recently identified along the migratory landbridge from northeastern Asia. Now, more than 11,000 years later, I wait for late May when robust young king, sockeye and coho begin their run from icy Alaskan streams to the ocean initiating a brief three months of salmon fishing in Pacific waters. Why is cooking this fish so inspiring?
These salmon are lean, firm fleshed and a beautiful deep orange color from a diet of krill. The meat roasts (as do all fish) in just 10 minutes per inch (measured at its thickest point) in a 425 F oven. I remove it when white drops of collagen (fat) begin to dot the surface. This fat contains the highly prized long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids. It's a nutritional windfall. (Forget outdated advice to cook fish until it flakes!)
The demand for salmon has exceeded supplies of wild stock for a generation, well before the American Heart Association issued its recommendation that we eat two servings of fish a week as a preventative measure. Today farmed Atlantic salmon accounts for 70% of salmon in the marketplace. It is raised in marine pen nets principally in Norway, Chile, Scotland, north Atlantic and Washington State.
Look carefully, and you can distinguish the difference between farmed Atlantic and wild salmon when the two lie side-by-side on a seafood counter. Farmed salmon appears paler in color, plump and soft-fleshed from its higher fat content. The flavor of this salmon is mild with a richer mouth-feel and, occasionally, a musty aroma. Two important selling points account for its popularity. It offers consistently higher Omega- 3 levels and a price point considerably lower than its wild cousins.
Aquaculture has been a big business since the 1980‘s but its risks to the environment have been slower to penetrate consumers’ consciousness. Americans look for the lowest priced commodity rather than the highest quality when they shop for food. Fortunately, the ecology of the world's oceans is an international priority. In 1994 the World Wildlife Fund, USA initiated the first of eight Aquaculture Dialogues involving 2000 participants that over two decades has forged codes of standards for 12 species of seafood raised in confinement. Standards for salmon were concluded in 2012 .
Enter the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, a non-profit international group formed in 2010 that offers certification to fisheries that meet the WWF Dialogues standards. ASC has a sister certification Council with a similar looking label, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). This consortium was formed in 1996 to certify wild fish stocks. ASC and MSC are currently working together on certification standards for the next wave of aquaculture businesses: seaweed farms.
The ultimate way to shop for seafood is with the mobile app from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. The MBA focuses at the granular level looking at each seafood purchase as it impacts the health of the ocean. The Watch relies on science based peer reviewed methods to evaluate wild stocks and fisheries . It ranks choices in one of three categories: Best Buy, Good Alternative and Avoid. Each rating includes the variety of fish, (in the case of salmon, whether it is Chinook, Sockeye, Coho or Atlantic), how it is raised or how it was caught if it is wild, and where it originates. The MBA maintains ties with producers, retailers and chefs; it has resources in the medical and scientific communities, and updates its listing every six months.
I recently gave my Seafood Watch mobile app a test drive. I looked for an ASC logo next to the display of plump, glistening farmed salmon at my local Jewel-Osco (owned by Albertsons). When the Jewel employee couldn't tell me anything about its origin, I asked to see the label from its shipping container. This paper had an unconvincing small, black and white ASC icon in one corner. Perhaps it was a sign of pre-certification? The name of the Chilean fishery was not one of those listed in the Seafood Watch guide. I decided to shop elsewhere.
On to Whole Foods where the choice was between a fresh farmed salmon at $10 per pound and pale, previously frozen Chinook salmon steaks at $30 a pound. The salesman (who happened to be the department manager) proudly told me that the farmed salmon came from Blue Circle Fisheries in Chile which is listed as a 'Good Alternative' on the Seafood Watch list. He then pointed to the large blue ASC plaque behind him on the wall. I placed my order.