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

Marine Protected Areas

I spent several years of my career managing fisheries. I worked hard at it but honestly, I wasn’t that great. It wasn’t for lack of trying, or lack of knowing what I was talking about it was lack of being convincing to fishermen that resulted in my decisions being regularly overturned. This was a frustrating situation for everybody and I was eventually relieved of my management responsibilities. I bring this subject up not out of some masochistic need for self-flagellation but to highlight a point. Managing fisheries is hard. It is part science, part communication, part diplomacy, and honestly part magic I think. The portion of management which consists of science shrinks or expands depending upon the nature of the fishery. At any rate, it often leads to over fishing.
Another really difficult part of fisheries management is preventing the gear involved from damaging the habitat. This is particularly problematic for fisheries on hard bottoms or in areas with sensitive, long-lived, habitat-creating species like corals and sponges. Surprisingly, these species are not just in tropical areas, but are quite common in Southeast Alaska, and other areas of the State as well. When fisheries are young, and effort is low it is easy for fishermen to avoid these sensitive areas. Invariably, however, the dance of intensification begins with the implementation of limited entry creating a wave of increased vessels entering the fishery resulting in managers shortening seasons to limit catch and fishermen fishing harder with more gear. Eventually it becomes next to impossible to avoid sensitive habitat.
Since my time at Glacier Bay I have been interested in the role of Marine Protected Areas (but fully protected, not just protected from commercial fishing) in providing for sustainable fisheries. Correctly designed, these protected areas can act as ‘insurance policies’ for fisheries in several ways. First, they preserve the intact ecosystem for study, so biologists can continue to improve their understanding of the species. Without such areas it is hard to say if observed changes in a species (such as declining size in king salmon and sablefish) are a result of the fishery, or the environment, making design of an appropriate response difficult. Second, they act as nurseries, exporting larvae and adults to adjacent areas. In New Zealand and the Canary Islands marine protected areas which were initially fought tooth and nail are providing such benefits that they are now advocated for by both commercial and recreational fishermen. Third, marine protected areas protect habitat too vulnerable to be exploited without destruction. Fourth, they prevent the ‘sliding baseline’ syndrome wherein each new generation of biologists and fishermen become accustomed to and accept a new lower level of ecosystem productivity. Finally, Alaska is currently reeling from global climate change effects which are predicted to hit high latitude areas harder than elsewhere in the world. Alaska’s fisheries developed later than the lower 48 and we have been able to implement policy to avoid many mistakes, making us a leader in sustainable fisheries in the nation and worldwide. Let’s continue that leadership by establishing a network of small, highly targeted marine protected areas throughout State and Federal waters of Alaska!

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.