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

Lanzarote-style Garlic Shrimp

My son Corwin was home over Christmas and we enjoyed doing a lot of cooking together. It’s such a joy to share the love of making and eating good food with my grown son! Some years ago, we took a family vacation to the Canary Islands where we visited some wonderful Spanish college friends of mine. The weather was sunny, the scenery lovely, but perhaps the most enjoyable and interesting part of the trip was the culture and the food! We had countless incredible meals, but one particularly stood out—-a simple garlic shrimp dish we enjoyed on Lanzarote Island. Ever since this time Corwin and I have been reminiscing about it and plotting to recreate the recipe! Turns out it was a renowned Island specialty and I recently rediscovered the recipe through the wonders of the internet. So, we set about to try to cook it. Here it is!

Lanzarote-style garlic shrimp tapas
Tools:
Oven-proof small casserole, cast iron pan, or terra cotta dish
Fry pan

Ingredients:
1 lb raw peeled prawns
10 cloves garlic
1 tsp red pepper flakes
½ cup olive oil – not extra virgin
Large knob butter
1 tsp spanish paprika
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
½ c chopped flat-leaf parsley

Instructions:
On Lanzarotte, this ‘tapas’ is served in a special oven-proof terra cotta dish. I substituted a small cast-iron fry pan but am on the lookout for a suitable small casserole which would be a more elegant serving method. Before you start cooking, put your serving dish in a very hot oven to heat and prepare a heat-proof place for it on the dining table.
– Put the olive oil in a pre-heated frying pan on high heat.
– Add the prawns, garlic and chili, and cook for one minute at high heat.
– Add the butter and paprika and stir.
– Put hot serving dish on table.
– Carefully transfer fry pan ingredients to hot serving dish.
– Add lemon juice and sprinkle parsley over.
– Eat with a good loaf of artisanal bread to mop up juices.

Post-script:
Truthfully, the outcome of this cooking adventure didn’t measure up to our memories of the dish. Upon reflection, I think the problem was two-fold. First, we used way too much olive oil because the recipe we were following was in ml and I was careless in converting it, and secondly the shrimp were not fresh enough.
Despite initially capturing a higher quality product, wild-capture fisheries sometimes have difficulty delivering it to market at a comparable freshness as a farmed product. Frozen seafood can be as good or better than fresh, but a very short period between capture and freezing and careful handling is required to maximize quality. The main cause of poor quality is high ‘fishery intensity’ or short seasons and excessive effort. This results from too many vessels and too much gear in the fishery, and from managers shortening fishing time to prevent overshooting target harvest levels while fishermen fish harder to maximize their catch share. Product quality subsequently declines further as it sits in cold storage. As a fisheries biologist who is also a cook, it pains me to see wild product looking bedraggled at the super market.
In contrast, high quality product is produced by Southeast Alaskan longline fisheries for which fishermen have their catch share pre-determined by their IFQs (Individual Fisheries Quota) so can fish in a more leisurely fashion, improving profits by attention to product quality rather than by increasing production.
Relaxing intensification to allow for leisurely production of high quality wild product would also benefit the resource as intense fishing results in more bycatch and habitat damage. But it would require extensive re-imagining of the current Southeast Alaskan shellfish fisheries management regime. IFQs are currently deemed unconstitutional for State fisheries. One of the main reasons for this is that they give ‘de facto’ ownership of the fishery to commercial fishermen. In the Alaska State Constitution, resources are owned equally by all State residents. This sounds like a really good idea, however, without explicit allocations to user groups, it puts Alaska square in the middle of the classic ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ described in 18th Century England, where resources owned by all are competed for and valued by none.
I had the good fortune to study for and obtain my Master of Science in Fisheries in Japan where there are thousands rather than hundreds of years of history in managing fisheries (not all of them successful). I studied a commercial shrimp fishery which is owned by the local fisheries cooperative who manage it based upon research advice from the regional government fisheries laboratory. Product is cooperatively produced by a small subset of vessels and the profits are shared by all.
Another interesting model is the Nova Scotia lobster fishery where harvest areas are opened consecutively throughout the summer, providing for a long season of fresh lobster availability and good quality and price to fishermen.
These ideas cannot be directly transferred to Southeast Alaska’s State fisheries, nor would we want to. While the implementation of IFQs for Federal fisheries in Alaska has improved product quality, it has also resulted in harvest share migrating out of small Alaskan communities and made entry difficult for young people. Expanding the IFQ approach to State-managed Alaskan fisheries would require harvestable surplus estimates and allocation plans between commercial, sport, and subsistence fisheries. It should also include mechanisms to keep permits in small communities. Other ideas that could be explored include permit buy-backs, permit stacking, and fishing days.
My intent here is not to imply a simple answer to the problem of intensification of fisheries but to suggest that a dialogue begin. As the importance of tourism in Southeast Alaska continues to increase, the success of the emerging local foods scene will be determined by modifying fisheries to provide fresh, high quality product throughout more of the year.

Red King Crab

It was a calm June day in Southeast Alaska. We were setting 200-lb, 7-ft base diameter conical crab pots to survey the red king crab grounds for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. As our own research vessel was overbooked this June, we were working on a chartered commercial vessel. We zigzagged through the area setting pots in preselected locations. Setting pots on a survey is different from commercial fishing as the pot locations are randomly predetermined (within areas of known crab habitat based upon historical survey catch distribution) so that the catch will be representative of the area and year, not of the skipper’s skill and knowledge. However, when chartering with a commercial skipper we habitually set additional ‘skippers choice,’ ‘prospecting’ pots using his knowledge of the area to expand our own.

I was having a hard time making myself useful. The deckhand wasn’t big, but commanded the deck with lithe, fluid movements. Grab the bait jars, throw them in the pot, snap them onto the webbing, using the hydraulic boom, lift the pot onto the launcher, throw the buoy and line over, launch the pot on the skippers’ quiet command over the deck speaker. Having performed these tasks as part of a team of three, I could see that there wasn’t any wasted movement here. The sparse, purposeful motion reminded me of the Japanese tea ceremony. As a biologist, field work is a welcome break from sitting at a computer analyzing data and writing reports; and it is a joy to work physically on the deck of a boat, so I did my best to contribute.

Several hours later we were done setting pots. We entered data into the computer as the boat rocked gently at anchor, then ate a simple tasty dinner, watched the sun set, and hit the sack.

The next morning, 18 hours later, we started pulling pots. Another nice day, not too sunny to dry out the crabs and make the bait smelly, but not too blowy or rough either, and the horse flies hadn’t hatched out yet as they would later in July. The pots came aboard as smoothly as they had gone over. Throw the hook to grapple the buoy, hand over hand the buoy aboard, wrap the crab block, and with a whine of the hydraulics, the pot surfaces. Hook the pot with the boom hook and pull it over the deck, unhook the purse line that holds the pot bottom closed, and release the crab onto the sorting table. Sort and measure the crab. There were big beautiful legal males, most with shiny clean shells, a few barnacle-studded and scratched; the females all have abdomens bulging with new purple-brown egg clutches, and the juveniles are spiny and quick. After we measure them, crabs are released gently overboard; they swim away, dreamlike into the depths. It is satisfying, rewarding work.

Back in the office our biometrician was waiting impatiently for this data, as the time between data collection, analysis, and management decisions is tight. He estimates the red king crab population size through mathematical modeling techniques. This information is used to set harvest levels for the commercial and sport fisheries in the area.

While fun to know how crabs get to our table, the biggest consideration for cooks is what recipe to use! In all honesty, I like king crab best sectioned, boiled in lightly salted water and dipped in butter. However, if you are lucky enough to have an abundance of this delicacy, then I can heartily recommend this recipe.

 

Thai Red King Crab Legs

Tools:

Cooking shears

Cutting board

Knife

Hand juicer

Large fry pan or wok with lid

 

Ingredients:

1 lb shell-on, uncooked red or golden king crab legs

3 T grape seed oil or canola oil

2 large shallots

1 clove garlic

1 ½ T ginger, julienned

2 T Thai fish sauce

1 t red pepper flakes

½ c dry white wine

Juice of 1 lime

½ lb green beans

1 c cooked short-grain white rice

 

Instructions:

  • Cut king crab legs in sections and then halve lengthwise with kitchen shears.
  • Slice shallots and garlic thinly and julienne ginger.
  • Cut green beans in bite-size lengths, remove stems.
  • Put grape seed oil in wok and heat until sizzling, add shallots, garlic, ginger, and red pepper flakes, cook until shallots are translucent.
  • Add shell-on king crab leg sections, green beans, fish sauce, chicken stock, and white wine to shallot mixture.*
  • Cover and cook for 6 minutes.
  • Serve over boiled short-grain white rice.
  • This recipe feeds 2 people.

 

* If crab leg sections are cooked, add them at about minute 4 of the 6-minute cooking time.

Dungeness Crab

We were walking a northern California beach at low tide looking for female Dungeness crabs buried in the sand for a friend’s PhD research project on Dungeness fecundity. My years of clam digging were paying off, the slightly angular buried crab image was easily identifiable and I found crab after wriggling female crab—orange egg masses bulging and claws attempting to pinch me. Back in the lab we (killed the crab and) removed the egg mass and estimated the number of eggs. Astonishingly, a female Dungeness can produce 2 to 3 million eggs per clutch. This is the reason she buries herself in the sand, its too many eggs to be carrying around. In Southeast Alaska, female Dungeness crabs bury themselves 5-crab deep and spend the winter hunkered down subsisting on stored energy reserves. The choice of where to bury is important because the eggs need to remain aerated during the approximately 6-month development period. SCUBA divers have found huge football field-size aggregations of these buried females in areas where the sediment has good water flow. In the spring, when the water warms up and phytoplankton blooms, females emerge from the sediment and fan their abdomens to release the attached embryos, which swim off to spend the summer munching plankton before settling to the bottom in the fall as baby crabs. About 5 years later, the crabs reach harvestable size. In Juneau, an evening’s skiff ride to pull crab pots or a trip to the harbor where commercial fishermen sell dockside, can net you a tasty 2 ½-lb Dungie or two. To be honest, I really don’t like messing around with fancy recipes for crab meat until I’ve eaten quite a bit simply boiled and dipped in butter! But after a couple of meals of unembellished fresh crab meat I’m ready to experiment. Here is one of my favorite recipes for Dungeness crab!
Dungeness crab melts
Tools:
Stock pan
Broiler pan
Bowl
Whisk

Ingredients:
One Dungeness crab
8 cups water
2 T salt
4 dashes Worcestershire sauce
Juice of ½ lemon
2 T capers
2 T horseradish
½ t black pepper
½ c mayonnaise
6 English muffins
Butter
8 oz Monterey Jack cheese

Instructions:
Clean crab, crack its sternum by banging hard on rounded blunt surface, pull off carapace (shell), and break body into two halves; remove gills and any innards clinging to meat. Bring salted water to boil in large stock pan. Add crab halves and boil for approximately 10 minutes. Remove crab from boiling water and shell.
Combine crab meat with mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, capers, horseradish, and pepper.
Split, toast and butter English muffins, arrange on broiler pan.
Top muffins with crab mixture.
Grate Monterey Jack cheese and spread over crab.
Broil crab melts on high for approximately 5 minutes on second shelf of oven until cheese melts, then turn oven to bake at 400 °F and continue warming crab melts for approximately 7 additional minutes.
This recipe serves 4 to 6 people.

Spot Prawns

I had first encountered Alaskan spot prawns in the 1980s as a graduate student in Japan: raw, whole, and sliced exquisitely on platters of sashimi that I squeamishly tasted but was too much a neophyte to truly appreciate. Now, in 1997, I found myself sorting and boxing glistening spot prawns at 1:00 a.m. on a chartered commercial fishing vessel. It had seemed so reasonable on my spreadsheet in the office, we would pay for the stock assessment survey by selling prawns, which would be unlikely to survive the trip to the surface and measuring and other biological examinations anyway. Brad, the captain and I had figured that our measuring would slow the pot pulling down a bit and adjusted accordingly but he had never worked with biologists on a charter and I had never pulled shrimp pots before. Oh, and then there was the tug and log barge towing a string of our pot gear that we had had to chase down. So there we were, laughing slap happily at Matt’s jokes as we helped Brad and Debbie box the day’s catch. Six days and not much sleep later, we rounded Cape Chacon, and arrived in Ketchikan richer in: data, a freezer hold full of prawns, and the wisdom shared by a master fisherman—and several pounds heavier with hastily consumed spot prawns.

As a biologist, cook, and hunter-gatherer, shrimp are one of my favorite foods. However, I find myself being annoyed recently by the lack of distinction made between cold water northern (Pandalids) and warm water southern (mostly Penaeids) shrimp species. Cooks especially need to understand this distinction as it has recipe choice considerations. Among those differences, Pandalids are protandric hermaphrodites (starting as male and later transitioning to female); after mating, females extrude and carry eggs on their abdomen during the fall and winter months, when most fisheries occur. In contrast, Penaeids are either male or female and broadcast their eggs and sperm into the water column so you never encounter one carrying eggs. It is unnecessary to devein cold water shrimp, but some people like to remove the dorsal abdominal tract (also known as deveining) of warm water shrimp as it often contains grit or can contribute an off flavor or contamination.

Commonly harvested northern, cold water shrimp species include spot prawn (scientific name Pandalus platyceros), coonstripe (P. hypsinotus), sidestripe (Pandalopsis dispar), northern (P. borealis), Alaskan (P. eous), and pink (P. jordani). The wild capture fisheries in Alaska and British Columbia employ shrimp pots to target spots and coons, while Alaskan bottom beam trawl fisheries target Alaskan and sidestripe shrimp. In Maine and throughout the North Atlantic, trawl fisheries target northern shrimp. In Oregon, a midwater trawl fishery targets pink shrimp.

The larger spot prawns, coonstripe, and sidestripe shrimp are sold fresh-frozen, shell-on, raw, whole, or tailed and sometimes live. The smaller Alaskan, pink, and northern shrimp, along with small sidestripe shrimp are generally sold as shelled tails, which are sometimes pre-cooked as salad shrimp.

So how do we use northern cold water shrimps to best advantage? They can be used in any dish currently starring their warm-water cousin (curry, gumbo, tempura), but in my opinion, they are better used in subtle dishes that highlight their firm texture and delicately sweet flavor. Smaller northern salad shrimp excel in nori-maki sushi, macaroni salad, as salad toppings, in shrimp cocktail, quiche, risotto or Fettucine Alfredo.

More leisurely culinary exploration has yielded these recipes:

Mom’s Shrimp Macaroni Salad

Ingredients

2 lbs cooked northern wild salad shrimp

2 large shallots

1 clove garlic

4 hard-boiled eggs

3 medium dill pickles

1 lemon

6 T any good mayonnaise, not lowfat

2 T apple cider vinegar

2 t Worcestershire sauce

1 t fresh ground black pepper

1 t powdered mustard

1 t sea salt

2 T chopped fresh parsley

½ t red pepper flakes

paprika

1 16-oz bag macaroni noodles

Instructions

  • finely mince shallots and garlic
  • chop hard-boiled eggs and dill pickles
  • juice lemon, mix with mayonnaise, vinegar, and Worcestershire sauce
  • add shallots, garlic, and dry ingredients
  • boil macaroni to ‘al dente’ stage per package instructions and drain
  • toss shrimp, eggs, pickles, and macaroni with lemon juice/spice/herb mixture
  • sprinkle salad with paprika and garnish with additional fresh parsley to beautify

This salad is best made a day in advance and stored in the refrigerator to allow flavors to meld.

Northern wild prawns are delicious any way they are cooked and can be eaten raw as sashimi, or in ceviche, or nigiri-sushi; or cooked in paella, risotto, Asian noodle dishes like Pad Thai, and grilled, pan-fried, steamed or boiled. The shell may be used to extract additional shrimp flavor to a broth. Egged shrimp are available seasonally and the eggs are delicious. Lest you be concerned about eating egged shrimp, be aware that all large cold water shrimp are carrying eggs at some stage of development, either externally, on the tail, or inside the head region before they are extruded. Finally, before you read on, gentle reader, I admonish you DO NOT OVERCOOK THESE SHRIMP; steam, boil, grill, or pan fry for no longer than it takes to turn their flesh opaque, in general about 3 to 5 minutes, but this varies with prawn size so pay attention.

Here is one of my favorite recipes:

Pan-fried Northern Wild Prawns

 Ingredients

1 lb shell-on wild spot prawns, coonstripe shrimp, or sidestripe shrimp, preferably with eggs

2 T extra virgin olive oil

6 large shallots or a medium-sized yellow onion

1 t grated fresh ginger

1 clove garlic

½ tsp fresh ground black pepper

Pinch of red pepper flakes

1 T sugar

2 T soy sauce (preferably Kikkoman)

½ cup of any decent white wine

Instructions

This recipe serves four people.

  • finely slice shallots, grate ginger, peel and mince garlic
  • heat olive oil and sauté shallots and garlic to translucent
  • add spot prawns, grated ginger, sugar, black pepper, and red pepper flakes, sauté about 2 minutes
  • add soy sauce, and white wine and sauté until prawns go from translucent to opaque, 2-3 more minutes
  • remove prawns
  • top white rice with prawns, then spoon onions and deglazing sauce over to taste