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

Wild Medicine

I’ve been interested in alternative medicine since taking a microbiology class as an undergraduate and being harangued by the professor about the impending demise of antibiotics as useful remedies for all that ails us. I’ve spooned garlic-infused oil in the ear of my ailing toddler son (after reading about its use by the Germans as an antibiotic in the trenches of World War II), munched zinc tablets for a threatening cold, drunk chamomile tea for stomach ache, used a netti bottle for sinus problems, soaked infected feet in hot salt water, and plastered wounds with Manuka honey—all with various levels of success.
Recently I’ve been following a new line of research which describes a startling decline in nutritional value of domestic vegetables. This is attributed partially to the pressures of farmers’ selection for sweeter more carbohydrate-rich vegetable varieties, and partially to higher growth rates due to elevated carbon dioxide levels associated with global climate change. This increases the value of including wild foraged vegetables such as dandelion greens, nettles, fireweed shoots, twisted stalk, wild celery, devils club shoots, and kelp in our diet. In addition to being highly nutritious, many of these wild vegetables also have medicinal value.
Thus, my interest was piqued recently when I heard of a skunk cabbage (x’aal’) root digging outing organized by Victoria Johnson of the Goldbelt Heritage for the Gruening Park Culture Club. What, I wondered, could skunk cabbage roots be good for? With this question in mind, I joined the Culture Club, a group of parents and their Tlingit children, on a lovely sunny April day to be taught by several Tlingit elders and knowledgeable Tlingit harvesters of local plants. Before heading down the Richard Marriot trail, we adjusted our mood by giving thanks (Gunalcheesh) to the plant people in the area for the skunk cabbage we were about to harvest. Victoria, her husband Johnny, and friend Tommy led us out the trail and we set about digging out several skunk cabbages, roots and all. As you might imagine, it’s quite a muddy affair. About an hour later, we had excavated two skunk cabbage plants from 4-ft diameter, 2-ft deep holes. After carefully filling the holes back in and thanking the skunk cabbages for gifting themselves to us, we washed them in Switzer Creek and brought them back to the parking lot.
There Victoria, Tommy, and Johnny, overseen by several Tlingit elders, explained the medicinal use of skunk cabbage and we each cut ourselves a share of the roots and preserved them in 99% rubbing alcohol in a glass canning jar. Turns out that skunk cabbage root extract is useful as a liniment for arthritic joints and for eczema. I’m grateful to have been included in this outing and looking forward to trying this remedy out on my ailing momma’s sore shoulders and my wimpy knee!
Perhaps the best part of the outing was the bright eyes and earnest efforts of the children as they helped us excavate and wash the skunk cabbage. They truly provide much-needed reason for optimism in our world full of problems.
Upon returning home, I read a little more about internal medicine uses of skunk cabbage. According to Janice Schofield, a tea made of thoroughly dried skunk cabbage can be used for colds and flues. I also read an interesting booklet by Richard Newton and Madonna Moss; in addition to describing historic Tlingit methods of harvest and preservation for fish, shellfish, and plants, it reminds us of the importance of harvesting sustainably.

Additional Resources:

Books:
Schofield, J.J. 1989. Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, The Northwest. Alaska Northwest Books.

Newton, R.G., and M. L. Moss. 1983. Haa Atxaayi Haa Kusteeyix Sitee, Our Food is Our Tlingit Way of Life. Excerpts from Oral Interviews. United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Alaska Region, R10-MR-50.

Eulachon

Spring is a hungry time in Southeast Alaska. In the late 1980s my dad and I were in Haines, working on a project to help minimize and mitigate impacts of the airport expansion on Sawmill Creek, a salmon creek which runs through the Haines airport wetlands. Sawmill Creek is a tributary of the Chilkat River, a large braided glacial river which winds through the Chilkat Valley. I was studying the rearing salmonids in the area by trapping them in Sawmill Creek and the bank of the Chilkat River bordering the airport. Besides salmonids, the Chilkat River boasts a substantial eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus) population as well and it was also my job to describe its timing. To do this, I interviewed locals who gave me a general idea of its timing (run begins about mid-April) and indicated that more precise timing could be determined by observing the behavior and abundance of gulls, sea lions, and seals on the Chilkat River delta. A Juneau resident, I hired a local Haines resident to make observations for me, and when the abundance appeared to be peaking, travelled to Haines to sample eulachon. Eulachon are caught with dip nets in areas where rock outcroppings create deep back eddy’s just downstream. Their run timing varies each year and depends on when the river warms up. Eulachon enter the river at high tide and the bird and mammal activity at the peak of the run is intense. It was great to share in their joy at this important first spring wealth of feed.
Eulachon return to large glacial rivers to spawn mostly as 3 or 4 year-olds. Like salmon, most eulachon spawn only once and then die. The baby eulachon (larvae) drift back out to salt water to grow up after an in-river incubation period of about a month.
Eulachon (saak) also have an important cultural significance to Tlingit people in Southeast Alaska. Besides being a vital food source, they were historically rendered for oil (saak eexi) in canoes filled with hot rocks. This oil (Eulachon have a fat content of 18 to 20% of wet mass, higher than sand lance, capelin or herring. Their fat is unusual in that it is more similar to sharks than to other bony fishes.) became a stable source of nutrition and an important trade item with interior native peoples and the well-known Chilkoot trail used by miners in the 1800s to access interior gold deposits was first developed as a ‘grease trail’ by Tlingit peoples.
Because the Haines area eulachon fishery has always been for subsistence use only, many of the traditional Tlingit taboos (ligaas) designed to assure eulachon sustainability have survived to modern times. These taboos are still followed by some but not all harvesters and include: harvesting only after the run has made it a certain distance upriver, not throwing rocks into or swimming in the river, not wearing bright colors, making loud noises, or allowing garbage, dishwater, pots and pans, dogs, and even hands or feet in the water. Taboo also requires clean fishing areas and prohibits menstruating women from harvesting.
We are fortunate in Alaska to have eulachon runs in Southeast, Yakutat forelands, South Central, and Western Alaska areas. In Southeast Alaska we have eulachon runs in 27 rivers (in the Adams Inlet (Glacier Bay), Excursion R., Endicott R., Chilkat R., Chilkoot R., Ferebee R. (Lutak Inlet), Taiya R., Skagway R., Katzehin R., Berners R., Lace R., Antler R. (Berners Bay), Eagle R., Mendenhall R., Taku R., Speel R., Whiting R. (Port Snettisham), Bradfield R., Hulakon R., Grant Cr. (Bradfield Canal), Stikine R., Unuk R., Klahini R., Eulachon R. (Burroughs Bay), Chickamin R., Wilson R., Blossom R. (Smeaton Bay)). Eulachon runs have declined in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California rivers. The declines are probably a result of combined effects of overharvest, habitat degradation, and changes in oceanic conditions resulting from global climate change.
Besides Eulachon, there are also several other species of smelt (Family Osmeridae) which spawn in Alaskan rivers and beaches. In the 1980s, when I was working counting out-migrating sockeye salmon smolts on a tributary of the Speel River in Snettisham Inlet, I found the carcass of a longfin smelt (Spirinchus thaleichthys) on the bank of the Speel River. There were wolves working the river mouth about the same time and I speculated that these smelt might be providing an important spring feed for them. Capelin (Mallotus villosus) are known to spawn on the beaches of the Yakutat forelands.
Since I last investigated eulachon, the declines in Lower 48 populations have resulted in a surge of interest in the populations and biology of Alaskan eulachon. Studies in the Haines/Skagway area have been ongoing since 2010. In the Haines area studies are spearheaded by the Takshanuk Watershed Council in cooperation with the Chilkoot Indian Association, and Oregon State University, while in the Skagway area the Gold Rush National Historic Park is taking the lead. The objective of these studies is to index or estimate adult spawning population size. Three different methods are being used: marking and recapturing adult eulachon, sampling environmental DNA, and sampling larval (baby eulachon) outmigration. In the Berners Bay area, eulachon have been studied from the standpoint of their importance as a forage fish, and interesting cooperative feeding behavior of Steller Sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) targeting eulachon has been described.
I did not render my eulachon for oil but, after sampling a sufficient quantity, brined and smoked some. I also pan fried a few after dipping them in seasoned flour. The pan-fried eulachon were a little oily even for me but brined and smoked they were delicious! It’s been years since I dip-netted eulachon, but every spring I think about them and one of these years I’m going to go over and try my luck in Berners Bay where the Lace River has a nice spring eulachon run. I’ve tried to recreate my recipe here. Give it a try if you’re fortunate enough to get your hands on some eulachon!

Smoked Eulachon

Tools:
5-gal stock pot
Little chief smoker

Ingredients:
24 eulachon, heads and tails on, cleaned
4 c warm water
1 c soy sauce
¾ c brown sugar
¼ c sea salt
¾ T garlic

Instructions:
Combine brine ingredients, stir to dissolve and then leave until cool. Immerse whole eulachon in brine and refrigerate for 6 to 10 hours. Remove fish from brine, pat dry, and let air dry on racks of smoker at room temperature until glaze forms on fish surface. Smoke for approximately 4 hours until fish skin feels leathery but not crispy. Eat whole, crunching down bones and all—a great source of calcium as well as Omega 3 fatty acid.

 

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.

Salmon Heads

A warm August evening found my son Corwin (then 10), friend Daniel (15), sister Brita and I hunkered around a fire at our camp on the back side of Portland Island, a short 20 minute skiff ride from Juneau’s Auke Bay. The Lund skiff rocked gently at anchor offshore. We’d finished half of Daniel’s first Coho, caught earlier that day while trolling at South Shelter Island, and were still a little bit hungry. The coals were glowing in a state of perfection that usually happens AFTER you’ve finished cooking whatever you had for your main dish. As dusk slowly fell, the boys skewered the coho head and started to slow roast it over the fire. We sat around, reflecting on the perfection of the day, listening to whales breathe offshore and inhaling the wonderful aroma of roasting salmon. After about an hour of roasting it was pitch dark and the head was done to perfection. We sat around in the light of the fire and picked off greasy, delicious pieces of head meat and popped them into our mouths like cave men. After a little while we put the fire out and stumbled into the woods to our tents to sleep, cheeks glowing and stomachs heavy with good food.

After years of practice, I’m actually pretty good at fileting salmon. Nonetheless, it has always pained me to waste salmon heads, collars, skeletons, fins, tails, hearts, and gonads. This is in part innate, and part a result of having eaten a lot of good meals from these parts. Just like a mammal, different parts of the fish have different flavors, textures, and oil content, and meat on the bone tends to be more flavorful and oily. For this reason, I’m always on the lookout for recipes that use salmon heads. If you’re not out camping, this light and delicious Phillipino soup recipe (modified from The Splendid Table) uses salmon heads and shell-on northern shrimp. I particularly like this recipe because while it feels like a treat, the richness is strictly from healthy seafood Omega-3 fats.

Seafood Sinigang Soup

Tools:

Large stock pot

Collander

Small tea strainer

 

Ingredients:

King or coho salmon head with collar, backbone, fins, and tail

¾ lb shell-on northern spot prawns or sidestripe shrimp, preferably with heads

2 c long-grain white rice

6 oz tamarind paste

¼ c fish sauce

1 14.5-oz can diced tomatoes

1 medium yellow onion

3 cloves fresh garlic

1 orange, red, or yellow pepper

½ pound kale

2 medium carrots

1/8 c chicken bouillon paste

4 c water

4 c rice washing water

½ tsp black pepper

Calamansi juice to taste

Instructions:

  • Simmer salmon head, bones, and fins in 4 c water, remove to strainer and cool, separate meat from bones and retain
  • Wash rice, retaining wash water and transfer to stock pot with salmon stock
  • Add 1 c hot water to tamarind paste, let sit for approx. 10 min then sieve to remove seeds, pod, and fibers
  • Chop onion and garlic
  • Slice pepper and carrots, remove mid-ribs from kale leaves and shred
  • Add tamarind paste, fish sauce, tomatoes, and chicken bouillon to stock pot, bring to boil
  • Reduce to simmer and add carrots, peppers, onion, garlic, and black pepper, simmer for 15 minutes
  • Just before serving add shrimp, kale, and salmon head meat, simmer for an additional 3 minutes
  • Serve over cooked rice, add calamansi juice* to taste

*Note that lime or lemon juice or rice wine vinegar may be substituted for the calamansi juice.