Love Song to Wild Salmon

Cooking shows, blogs, and cook books these days love to expound upon the merits and cooking methods of ‘farmed’ versus ‘wild’ salmon. This totally neglects the fact that there are five species of wild Pacific salmon: Chinook (king, Oncorhynchus tschawytsha), Coho (silver, Oncorhynchus kisutch), Sockeye (red, Oncorhynchus nerka), Chum (dog, Oncorhynchus keta), and Pink (humpy, Oncorhynchus gorbuscha); and one Atlantic salmonid species (Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar—actually a trout) which is commercially extinct and has been adapted to salmon farming. One of the wonders, and vulnerabilities of wild salmon is that they are uniquely adapted to their spawning environment. This results in countless genetically unique stocks of each species, each returning to spawn in a very specific portion of a watershed at a specific time of year and after a specific number of years in freshwater followed by a specific number of years in salt water. These unique adaptations result in very different eating qualities. Through my career as a fisheries biologist, fisherman, and having been raised on a sockeye lake, I’ve had the honor of getting to know many of these stocks.
During my undergraduate education I was fortunate enough to be able to work during the summers for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as a fisheries technician. I took my summer work as an opportunity to explore Alaska, which is otherwise large, remote, and expensive to travel around. My first major exploration was to take a job on a weir on a tributary of the upper Kuskokwim River. I flew into McGrath, a roadless town of about 400 people 220 air miles northwest of Anchorage, in early June. My partner met me at the plane and we shopped and loaded our river boats with the weir materials. Having perhaps slightly exaggerated my river boating experience in the short phone interview that got me the job, I was somewhat daunted to be given command of the smaller of the two boats and sent on my way upriver with instructions to avoid snags close to shore and take the first right and then the first left. He would follow me in the second, faster riverboat in about an hour, after completing a little more shopping. My boating experience to date was considerable, but none of it involved navigating large, fast-moving, muddy rivers full of snags and sand bars in a heavily loaded, flat-bottomed riverboat with a propeller-driven outboard engine. One thing you learn early as a woman in a man’s profession is to show no fear, pain, or uncertainty. So, I gamely headed upstream, white knuckling the outboard tiller and squinting at every muddy swirl in an attempt to avoid hazards. After about an hour underway, I was beginning to relax. I’d successfully navigated the first turn and saw the next one right ahead. It was a beautiful sunny day and I was enjoying the solitude, just then the boat ground to one of those engine-screaming, propeller-mud-flinging stops that every riverboat operator dreads. I was high on a sand bar and heavily loaded with 50-gallon drums of gas and metal weir pickets, there was no way I was going to get off by myself. Happily, 15 bug-ridden minutes later, my partner arrived, and we were able to shift my load into his boat enough to float me off and resume our trip upstream.

It was the beginning of a beautiful summer. We built a weir and field camp and counted about 200 king salmon in the three-month field season. This left plenty of time to explore the area, part of the dreaded Fairwell Burn (a nightmarish stretch of the Iditarod trail famed for its fire-killed trees, wind, and sparse snow) by riverboat. We visited neighboring fish camps, eating dry fish strips and taking steam baths. The abundant dead trees make the area a summer bird mecca and we saw owls and discovered osprey nests in our forays. We were on a clear-water tributary and so could see the king salmon well. They were large, and very red so close to the spawning grounds. We didn’t kill any, but our fish camp neighbors gave us some steaks and they were still amazingly pink-fleshed, fatty and delicious despite being so close to spawning grounds. They were very special fish. We kept a clean camp and saw few brown bears that summer, they are much less dense in the interior of Alaska.

So, you might be wondering by now what is my point in relaying this story? I think it is that when you eat wild salmon you are participating in an ecosystem and that concomitant with that participation comes a commitment to preserve and protect.
Some years later, I participated in the troll fishery for king salmon in Southeast Alaska. I have a particularly strong memory of one day. After much agonizing, Tom had decided that we’d begin our King salmon troll season at Point Amelia, on West Kruzof Island. It turned out to be an excellent decision. We caught over 100 king salmon that sunny morning. So far from the spawning grounds, each was a bright beautiful bullet of a fish, with individuality suggesting their varying origins in their underlaying glints of maroon, green or blue. Salmon trolling was a wonderful experience. It combines applied biology with the hunter-gatherer’s joy of being in the moment, alternating with long periods of boredom. We trolled alongside humpback whales, peacefully sharing the fishing grounds, and fished for cohos in offshore jelly fish forests—visible only on the sonar and on our lines when they were pulled to the surface. The coho stomachs there were filled with the juvenile cod that shelter in jelly fish forests.
Fast forward to today and king salmon stocks in many areas of Alaska are in trouble. Stocks are declining and the size of salmon returning to spawn has decreased dramatically. There is uncertainty as to what is causing these problems, but it seems to be a result of reduced marine survival and growth. Earlier juvenile outmigration (because of warming rivers) at a time when the ocean food conditions are poor could reduce survival. Other potential reducers of marine survival include: interception by non-target fisheries, and impacts to high seas migration by ocean current changes. Slowed growth may be being caused by ecosystem changes, caused either by climate change, or by excessive hatchery releases of pink and chum salmon. There are many efforts underway to enhance sustainability of our wild salmon stocks. Join the struggle!
Oven-Broiled King Salmon

King salmon is probably my favorite wild Pacific salmon, but I love coho and sockeye too. Chum roe is delicious in sushi or as an appetizer or garnish (Chum roe has the highest price because its eggs are largest, next comes pink, coho, king, and finally sockeye salmon). Chums and pinks make great salmon burgers. Here is my favorite recipe for oven-broiled king salmon. I don’t trust myself with it on the grill, I’ve lost too many belly strip pieces between the grates! My mouth is watering just thinking about it, time to run to the grocery store.
Tools:
broiler pan
knife
ziplock bag
small bowl
wire whisk

Ingredients:
2 lbs King salmon steaks
½ c soy sauce
½ c brown sugar
4 T sesame oil
2 T yellow miso
4 T grated ginger
½ t crushed red pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
½ t black pepper

Instructions:
Mix marinade ingredients together, pour into zip lock bag.
Add king salmon steaks.
Marinate for ½ to 2 hours.
Heat broiler pan under broiler for 5-7 minutes at highest oven rack position.
Put king salmon steaks on broiler pan, return to oven, broil for about 7 minutes or until just beginning to caramelize.
Baste with marinade, switch oven to bake at 400 F.
Bake for about 12 minutes depending upon thickness of steaks until just beginning to flake.
Serve with rice.

Resources
www.standforsalmon.org
www.seacc.org
www.akmarine.org
https://alaskaconservation.org
https://www.tu.org

“Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat Farmed Salmon” or: 12 Things You Can Do to REALLY Conserve Wild Salmon, “How to be a Salmon Warrior”

I used to have one of these bumper stickers on my bulletin board at work. Eventually though, its meaninglessness led me to take it down. Honestly friends, the issue of Farmed vs. Wild salmon is not one to be resolved by plastering bumper stickers on our cars or sharing Facebook memes describing the nutritional deficits and chemical poisons in farmed salmon. To be straight, this is a battle we are currently losing. The salmon farmers are panting at our collective doors with their beady little eyes at our keyholes and unless we get serious about conservation of wild salmon we’ll be giving them our spare keys and pulling down our knickers.
OK. Enough crudeness and bad metaphors, have I got your attention? We’ve been smart, gutsy and visionary enough to establish regulations prohibiting salmon farming early in the game but now continued maintenance of wild salmon populations in the state of Alaska is going to take the collective will power of all of us. It’s the little things that make the difference friends, our salmon rivers, lakes, streams, ponds, and ditches are currently dying the death of 1,000 cuts in the name of progress and economic growth. As Alaskans, we still think this land is limitless and that we can have our cake and eat it too, and I include myself in this category.
So, if slapping a bumper sticker on our car and sharing Facebook memes isn’t enough what can we do to keep every little Bay or Harbor in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska from sprouting a salmon farm? Here’s a list:
1.) Don’t build houses on salmon rivers, and in Alaska ALL our rivers are salmon rivers, so I amend that to: Don’t build houses along rivers.
2.) Oppose logging forests along salmon streams.
3.) Oppose pollution of salmon rivers with mine tailings.
4.) Don’t poison your driveway or lawn with herbicides like RoundUp or Weed n Feed—it’ll end up in a salmon river or lake somewhere.
5.) Eat organic vegetables and limit your consumption of farmed meat so that you’re not contributing to runoff of excess fertilizer or poop from feed lots into rivers and estuaries where it will create oxygen-deficient zones killing baby salmon and other fishes.
6.) When a public official tells you No (No permit to fill wetlands, No fishing until a stock rebuilds, No permit to build a new salmon hatchery) don’t go running to your Daddy the elected official and tell him how mean they were to you.
7.) Support high density housing to avoid cutting down more forests so that we can all live the American suburban dream.
8.) Oppose increased hatchery releases (unless targeted to rehabilitate a wild stock), particularly adjacent to salmon rivers where hatchery stock are likely to stray into wild rivers.
9.) Oppose hydroelectric projects on salmon rivers.
10.) Donate to environmental organizations if you don’t have the time or inclination to stay on top of these issues yourself.
11.) Teach a child how to conserve wild salmon.
12.) Get out there and catch a salmon and share it with your neighbor!

So to those of you who have stuck with this tirade, I’m sorry to ruin your day but if you really want to be a Salmon Warrior its just not that easy. But its oh so worthwhile when we come home from a days fishing or the grocery store with a beautiful wild salmon for dinner!

Additional Resources:

http://www.StandForSalmon.org
http://www.akmarine.org
http://www.akcenter.org
http://www.supportnature.org/
http://www.ak.audubon.org
http://www.discoverysoutheast.org

 

Black Cod

It was in the late 1980s before limited entry, when 2 to 3-day ‘derby’ longline fisheries were still the norm in Southeast Alaska. We were three miles offshore Yakobi Island in a 100-year-old wooden troller, the F/V Delores, pulling black cod (also known as sablefish, species name Anoplopoma fimbria, not really a cod at all but a deep-water cod-like fish, very fatty and tasty) longline gear in building seas, when the diesel engine sputtered and died. My then-boyfriend, Tom had purchased the Delores for a song several years previously after her second sinking and repowered and resurrected her. She was 32-feet long at the waterline, but with her small cabin and double-ended hull design with gentle shear, she handled seas like a vessel twice her size. We had been baiting up in nearby Pelican for several days and had miles of longline gear out. Our work was paying off as the fishing was good: nearly every other hook had a large, beautiful black cod on it and our hold was filling fast.
Tom took one look below and announced that the engine room was full of water. We still had nearly a mile of longline gear out and it was a pitch-black night. As Tom disappeared below deck, I found myself alone in the darkened wheel house, wondering how long until the battery was submerged, killing the Loran-C and marine VHF radio. Near panic, I grabbed the VHF radio microphone and put out the call: “May Day, May Day, this is the F/V Delores,” giving our loran coordinates. This is the universally-accepted distress call for a vessel at sea. I later learned that numerous nearby commercial fishing boats, upon hearing our call, stopped pulling and began steaming towards us, losing precious fishing time. However, just then Tom emerged from below and the diesel sputtered to life as the bilge pumps cleared the engine room—hearing me, he turned off the VHF in horror. We buoyed off the longline gear, and quietly steamed for Pelican to offload our catch. I’ve always been grateful for the help we almost needed and embarrassed that I didn’t turn the radio back on and grab the microphone to let the fleet know we were alright. But under the circumstances I was happy to be underway, and quiet acquiescence seemed the best path. Probably the thing I missed most when my commercial fishing career abruptly ended after Tom and I split up was the sense of community on the water. The Coast Guard is great if they can get to you in time when you need them (and I am extremely grateful for the two times I have been rescued by them), but it’s more likely that another fisherman will help you out.
My culinary education on black cod had begun several years earlier in Japan. It is probably the tastiest beer-drinking food of the Japanese “salary man”. It is most commonly eaten marinated for a day in various combinations of sake-kasu (the solids leftover after fermenting rice into sake), miso, ginger, soy sauce, and rice wine vinegar and then broiled or roasted, although it is also excellent raw, as sashimi. I recently revived a version of what I remember eating in Tokyo, after an extensive hunt for the sake-kasu. Here is the recipe, however, if it as difficult for you as it was for me to find sake-kasu (I finally located an artisanal sake maker in Vancouver who shipped me some!) you can eliminate it and just use miso and the fish will still be delicious! Honestly, if you are a lover of rich, oily fish it is hard to ruin black cod. The oiliness of this fish also means its extremely high in Omega 3 fatty acids making it a very heart healthy food.
Sake kasu and Miso-marinated Broiled Black cod
Tools:
Broiler pan
Bowl
Whisk
Gallon ziplock bag
Ingredients:
2 lbs black cod filets or steaks
⅓ c sake-kasu
⅓ c yellow miso
⅓ c soy sauce
3 T sugar
⅓ c rice wine vinegar
3 T grated fresh ginger
Instructions:
Combine sake-kasu, miso, soy sauce, sugar, rice wine vinegar, and grated fresh ginger in bowl, whisk until smooth and put in gallon ziplock bag. Add black cod filets to ziplock bag, close and marinate in refrigerator for 40 minutes to 12 hours.
Turn broiler to high, preheat broiler pan for 5 minutes. Remove black cod from refrigerator, put on preheated broiler pan, return to oven with rack on second highest rung. Broil for 7 minutes until top of fish is just beginning to blacken. Turn oven to bake and set at 400 F. Finish cooking fish for another approximately 7 minutes (depending upon filet thickness) until fish is cooked through. This recipe serves 4, I like to serve it with short-grain brown rice.

Bristol Bay Red King Crab

During the heyday of the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery in the mid 1980s, I was working in Juneau as a Fisheries Technician and was given the opportunity to travel to Dutch Harbor to assist on a pilot tagging project being conducted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Commercial Fisheries Division, research section based in Kodiak. They needed more trained dockside samplers to attempt tag recovery of PIT (passive integrated transponder) tags implanted in red king crab to test the feasibility of a full scale, field-level tagging project. The purpose of this project was to develop a tag not visually detectable externally. This was to address a problem with crab spaghetti tags being either lost during the molt or removed from by crew members to adorn their hats instead of returned to ADF&G for the paltry tag reward. Crab grow through a process called molting wherein they shed their old shell and grow a new one. Tags are used by biologists to study crab growth, movement, and harvest rate to provide for sustainable management.

As the crab boats pulled up to the UNISEA processing plant unloading dock, we dockside samplers went aboard, interviewed the skipper in the wheelhouse, and then sampled totes of red king crabs as they were offloaded. Stepping onto the vessel bridge and into the wheelhouse you entered a tiny fiefdom, the character of each determined by the captain, and generally reflected in the demeanor of the crew and quality of the red king crab catch. The unmistakable cream of the crop were the thick-accented, close-cropped, soft-spoken Norwegian skippers with their crew gliding efficiently in the background, responding efficiently to the Captain’s quiet commands. With their immaculate bridges and tidy decks, these operations were a joy to behold, and invariably yielded vigorous, lively crab with little dead loss. Below this gold standard there were bleary-eyed, leering captains with sullen, beer-swilling crew presiding over debris-strewn bridges with holds full of sluggish crabs and every level imaginable between. It was truly the ‘Wild West’ of the red king crab fishery; fortunes were being made while lives were lost and bodies ruined.

The research staff outside the processing plant inserted PIT tags into the tail of crabs and salted totes with the tagged crabs. Inside the processing plant, we samplers scanned crab with a PIT tag detector as we measured their carapace length and examined them for shell age. Only a few of us samplers had a good detection rate, and the effort was determined a failure and the method scrapped. Crab biologists worldwide are still struggling to develop a decent method to age crabs. Current crab growth research has several different avenues of investigation: the accumulated level of lipofuscin, a pigment in the crab’s eyestalk; distinguishing growth rings by sectioning hard parts in the crab’s stomach that are retained through the molt; and the idea of implanting crabs with ‘pearl’ seed which develop growth rings.

I returned to Dutch Harbor about 5 years ago, passing through enroute to a research cruise, and found it much changed, probably for the better. The ‘Wild West’ mentality had been replaced by an orderly and efficient company town.

Here is a decadent and fun recipe I like to use for leftover red king crab meat. Use it to wow your dinner party with fairly minimal effort!

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Seafood a la king

Tools:

Medium sauce pan

Cookie sheet

Ingredients:

10 oz cooked red king crab meat

10 oz cooked northern salad shrimp

1 box puff pastry shells

4 T butter

4 T all-purpose flour

2 c milk

½ t pepper

½ t salt

1/8 t nutmeg

Pinch cayenne

1 c frozen peas

½ a red pepper, chopped

1 T pimento

1 medium onion, chopped

4 dashes Worcestershire sauce

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 400° F. Put puff pastry shells on cookie sheet and bake for 15 min.
Pull crab and shrimp meat from refrigerator, allow to come to room temperature.
Melt butter, add chopped onions and red pepper and sauté until onion is translucent. Slowly whisk in flour until mixed. Add milk and heat, stirring constantly until mixture thickens. Season to taste with salt, pepper, nutmeg, and cayenne, remembering that the cooked crab is often somewhat salty. Add pimentos, capers, and Worcestershire sauce.
Fold in peas, cook until warmed.
Fold in room temperature crab and shrimp.
Spoon mixture over puff pastry shells and serve hot.

 

Pacific Halibut

Well, Alaska’s IFQ halibut and black cod fisheries opened March 1 and all the longliners that were tied up at the dock in Auke Bay are out fishing, yeah!! I really enjoyed the time I spent longlining. It’s a fishery that has changed very little in hundreds of years. Just brutally hard work over long hours with you, the boat, the ocean, the grounds and your shipmates. Traditionally, Alaska’s longline fisheries were plied by beautiful wooden North Sea longline schooners. You still see a few traditional longline schooners around, but at least in Southeast Alaska, the fishery these days is conducted more by a diversified fleet which also participates in a variety of other fisheries, trolling or seining for salmon, or fishing Dungeness, Tanner or king crab or shrimp. I participated pre-IFQ days in both halibut and black cod fisheries and declined IFQ permits for these fisheries when they were issued as I decided it would be a conflict with my job as a State fisheries biologist. One trip specifically is warm in my memory banks.
We were chugging slowly up Glacier Bay in our dinghy old troller, the F/V Delores, enroute to a halibut derby opening, deck stacked with metal tubs of longline gear painstakingly baited with herring and squid in Elfin Cove over the previous several days. We were excited to try out a new ground we’d scouted the previous year and Tom was strategizing about how to wrest the longline set from the only other boat in the area. The Ocean Gold, a gillnetter skippered by an ornery old cogger with snap-on gear. Tom had just taken the longline drum off the Delores and fitted her with a chute for setting tub gear, so we were strategically well-situated to command more than perhaps was our fair share of the grounds. Arriving on the grounds well ahead of the noon opening, we began running up and down the 200-fathom isobath outside and south of Tidal Inlet, planning the set and making sure we understood the bathymetry. Nautical charts, while useful, are data sparse. The grounds were an area where a steep (glacially-scoured) side-wall met a flat (glacial outwash sediment) bottom at a depth of about 200 fathoms (1 fathom = 6 ft). When the 24-hr fishery opened at the stroke of noon, we began setting gear just outside Tidal Inlet, heading south. The tub gear went out much more quickly than the old snap-on gear and we were able to set at a speed of about 4 knots (nautical miles per hour), much more rapidly than before. With about 2/3 of our gear out we got a call on the marine VHF from the Ocean Gold, setting north he had just noticed us hoovering up ‘his’ ground and was spitting mad. Tom took the call, and after some verbal posturing the two skippers figured out how to avoid setting gear on top of each other and we finished our set. And it was worth fighting over, with huge 100+ lb halibut dripping off the ground line like grapes on every other hook, we soon filled our hold and had to put some fish below in the companionway.
Some years later, I was at a dead end in my State fisheries job, so I went to work for the Park Service in Glacier Bay as a fisheries biologist on a halibut tagging and tracking project. Despite my professional qualifications, it was my commercial fishing experience that got me that job. Federal legislation was set to close the Bay to commercial fishing and researchers there wanted to study halibut movement to understand if a closure of that size would be likely to affect the local halibut population. We tagged halibut by implanting sonic tags and checked up on their movements by running around in a boat with a hydrophone to relocate them several times a week. It was really interesting to look at halibut distribution on an individual basis. The jist was that smaller halibut moved extensively while the larger ones exhibited a strong site fidelity, leaving the Bay (probably to spawn) in late summer, and returning to the same location the following year. Since commercial fishing in Glacier Bay was replaced by sport fishing which is apparently a more ‘park-appropriate’ activity, I don’t imagine there was much impact of the closure on the halibut population size, but I am curious.
It’s not too fancy, but here is one of my favorite halibut recipes!

Mustard Halibut Almandine
Tools:
Baking dish

Ingredients:
2-lb skinless halibut filet
⅓ c melted butter
⅓ c mustard
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
2 c plain yogurt
1 c panko bread crumbs
1 c slivered almonds

Instructions:
Preheat oven to 400° F.
Mix melted butter with mustard.
Set halibut filet in baking dish, season both sides with salt and pepper and brush with melted butter/mustard mixture.
Bake uncovered for 15 minutes until fish just begins to flake.
Mix yogurt with slivered almonds.
Remove fish from oven and slather with yogurt/almond mixture.
Return to oven for 5 minutes.
Remove fish from oven and sprinkle with panko bread crumbs.
Broil for 5 minutes until panko are golden brown.

Farmed Shrimp

I’ve been trying hard not to get on the ‘buy this not that’ bandwagon but this is a place where I feel I must weigh in. There is a lot of mis- and bad information about the different types of shrimp. I’ve talked previously here about northern, cold-water (pandalid) shrimp versus southern, warm-water (penaeid) shrimp but I haven’t talked about farmed versus wild penaeid shrimp (pandalid shrimp are not farmed). The relative wealth of western society and our love for eating shrimp has created an ecological nightmare in Mexico, and in South American and Southeast Asian countries where mangrove beaches and estuaries are being converted into shrimp farms. This eliminates vital mangrove rearing habitat for fish and invertebrates, harming local wild fish populations and the fishermen who depend upon them, all the while creating additional demand for wild fish as shrimp food, and virtually enslaving the disenfranchised local fishermen. The environmental practices associated with these shrimp farms are poor, resulting in an environment and a shrimp product contaminated with PCBs, bacteria, antibiotics, and other chemicals. When this contaminated shrimp hits U.S. docks, the problem worsens, as the lack of an effective seafood labelling program soon renders them indistinguishable from U.S. wild penaeids.
Happily, farmed penaeids can be fairly easily distinguished from wild pandalids, which are an excellent choice from a health standpoint and a decent choice from an environmental standpoint. Penaeids have a strong dorsal ‘vein’ (actually the digestive tract) which is often removed and are never found with eggs attached as they are broadcast spawners. In pandalids, the digestive tract doesn’t need to be removed and there are often eggs attached to the abdomen. Finally, the first three penaeid legs but only the first two pandalid legs, have pinchers. Wild pandalid shrimp are high in protein, and rich in the antioxidant astaxanthin, as well as in selenium, and copper. Although pandalid shrimp are high in cholesterol, their strong, 1:1, omega3:omega6 ratio makes it healthy to consume in moderation even for people with elevated cholesterol. Wild pandalid fisheries are conducted with midwater trawls, beam trawls and pots, all these gears have low bycatch and low to moderate habitat impacts, depending on the substrate.

Wild Food

I’ve thought a lot lately about what I eat and how it is produced. Because I have the luxury of living in Alaska, where wild foods are abundant and accessible on our extensive public lands, I hunt deer, fish for salmon; char; and halibut, dig clams, pick berries, gather seaweed and wild greens, and hunt for mushrooms. I hunt, fish, and gather for many reasons.
I love hunting. Moving quietly through the woods hunting deer or mushrooms brings me more into the present moment than any yoga or meditation class I’ve ever attended and instills a deep appreciation for and understanding of habitat. I do not enjoy killing, but I’d rather kill and eat a deer that has had a good life in the wild than buy the meat of an animal that has spent its life in captive misery.
It matters to me that the animals I eat have experienced joy. The taste of animal-joy is in smooth, strong, lean muscles and thick layers of clean fat, in the delicate texture and flavors of carefully cooked organ meat, in the fat that congeals on the roof of your mouth after eating ribs. It is in the flick of a deer tail as it darts quickly away through a screen of blueberry bushes, or the insolent look of a marten trying to steal your kill, in the gaze of a wild wolf or bear, stumbled upon in excessively close quarters.
Eating wild also saves money and makes me more self-sufficient and less reliant upon the grocery store. There is a confidence to being able to produce your own food that I treasure. It makes me less tied to employment and allows me a more independent viewpoint.
Alaskan wild food is the cleanest and most nutritious food available. We have very little agriculture or manufacturing in Alaska, so our wild foods are relatively untainted by pesticides, fertilizers, or air pollution. Wild foods are naturally organic, being pesticide and hormone-free; they are also non-GMO, and free range. Wild salmon has less saturated fat and PCBs than farmed salmon and wild blueberries and cranberries are higher in antioxidants by nearly an order of magnitude than domesticated varieties. Eating venison can lower LDL (bad cholesterol) and increase HDL (good cholesterol) levels.
Hunting and gathering of wild foods doesn’t utilize fertilizers, or require unnaturally high-density aggregations of animals, so pollution is limited to the footprint of the hunter-gatherer.
When I can’t hunt or gather my own wild foods I buy them, preferably from local fishermen or the grocery store. This supports my local economy, promotes community, and creates advocates for wild rivers and oceans. Wild takes must be well-managed to avoid overharvest, habitat damage, and excessive use of fossil fuels. As a hunter-gatherer and consumer of commercially harvested wild food, I pay attention to issues around sustainability and contribute to non-profit organizations that are engaged with influencing government policy around commercial and personal harvest.
Advocates for wild lands staying wild are increasingly important in our world where every scrap of land and water is employed for the benefit of humanity. In addition to food, wild lands provide many benefits to humanity that are insufficiently understood and valued. If a river is not incubating salmon eggs, there is less reason to worry about mines spewing waste into it, transporting ore on it, it’s being dammed to produce hydroelectric power, or being diverted for agricultural, industrial, or urban purposes. Alaska’s wild rivers are the arteries and veins of our wild lands, providing homes and thoroughfares for moose, wolves, bears, wolverines, and lynx—among others. Chanterelle mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungal mats associated with evergreen trees which are found exclusively in old-growth forests. In addition to producing tasty mushrooms for humans and other foragers, these fungal mats have recently been found to produce antiviral compounds that help bees stay healthy.
The extensive access to wild foods that Alaskans enjoy is undeniably unique. Nonetheless, wild foods are gathered in many areas of the world. Norwegians pick lingonberries, Finns are passionate mushroom hunters, and Oregonians gather copious hazelnuts. The cultural benefits of hunter-gathering may even outweigh their nutritional value. Sustaining these resources into the future will require a multi-faceted approach: advocacy for maintaining and expanding wild lands and harvests, shifting back to a more intensive small-scale agriculture and transitioning to a more plant-based diet.