Salmon, Species and Suistainable Choices

Some of the questions I was asked the most over the weekend related to salmon. Which salmon are sustainable? What’s the difference between wild and farmed salmon? Is salmon ‘safe’ to eat? Where can I buy sustainable salmon? So for my weekly ingredient series today, I decided to write about salmon.

Salmon has been a staple in many cultures across time. Once abundant in Europe and North America, stocks have been in serious decline and wild Atlantic Salmon is all but extinct.

Salmon . Species and Suistainable Choices
Salmon | ilustrate

Salmon is born in freshwater then spends between one and four years in the ocean before returning to its home to spawn. Females can lay as many as 1300 eggs. Pacific salmon dies after it spawns, however Atlantic salmon can reproduce up to four times.

There are five species of Pacific salmon, one species of Atlantic salmon, and one species of freshwater salmon which is only found near in the Northeast coast of North America and in Scandinavia:

  • Chinook or King Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha): Light pink to dark orange flesh. Usually found fresh or smoked.
  • Sockeye or Red Salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka): Red flesh that is firm and flavourful. Often canned since it is a slender fish of uniform length. Also found smoked or salted.
  • Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch): Orange-red flesh that breaks easily into large pieces. It’s not as flavourful as the Chinook or Sockeye salmon. It’s often canned, although can be found fresh, frozen or smoked. It’s the most important commercial salmon species.
  • Pink Salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha): Soft, pinkish flesh that breaks easily into small pieces. It’s small and matures quickly (2 years), and is generally considered inferior salmon. Commonly sold canned.
  • Chum Salmon (Oncorhynchus keta): Slightly pink, spongy, soft flesh that breaks apart. It has the least attractive flesh and is the least flavourful of all salmon. It’s best fresh but often sold canned, frozed, dry-salted or smoked.
  • Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar): Pink, fragrant flesh that is very different from Pacific salmon species (above). Best wild and prepared fresh but is sometimes smoked. All commercially available Atlantic salmon is farmed.
  • Ounaniche or Landlocked Salmon (Salmo salar ouananiche): Very similar to Atlantic salmon.
Salmon . Species and Suistainable Choices 2
Salmon 2 | ilustrate

Salmon Species from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. (Note: Steelhead Salmon is actually Rainbow Trout harvested in the ocean, not salmon.)

Salmon is high in protein and omega-3 fats. Chinook is the fattiest salmon and Chum is the leanest.
From a sustainability point of view:

All commercially available Atlantic salmon is farmed and there are huge environmental concerns over the aquaculture methods used for salmon farming. Farmed Atlantic salmon is a red choice, or avoid, on every single sustainable seafood guide that I’ve seen.

Avoid it. Unfortunately, organic labeling in aquaculture is not well defined. If you choose organic farmed Atlantic salmon, I suggest investigating the individual farm to make sure it is uses closed-systems.

Pacific Salmon is more complicated and will depend on the specific geographic region, or even the river where the salmon return to spawn.

Local environmental factors, like dams, habitat loss and pollution, will hugely affect local stocks. Some regions still report abundant salmon, whereas the numbers returning to other rivers are dangerously low.

Overfishing is a concern in some areas.

In a nutshell, Alaskan Pacific salmon is generally considered a green or best choice since stocks appear to be abundant and the rivers clean. The fisheries are also extremely tightly managed.

There are some concerns with by-catch with Chinook salmon from Alaska, but other than that all’s pretty good with Alaska salmon. After that the waters get murky.

Some Washington state, Northern Oregon and British Columbia salmon runs seem to be in good shape, whereas there are serious concerns about others. As well, there are concerns about PCB and other environmental contaminants bio-accumulating in Pacific salmon caught in the US Northwest. Pacific salmon stocks are generally in bad shape anywhere else.

When I buy Pacific salmon, if I can’t find Alaskan then I rely on labeling systems and look for MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) or Oceanwise certified salmon. The labeling systems are not perfect, but they do serve as a guide.

Salmon . Species and Suistainable Choices 3
Salmon | ilustrate

So to sum up:

  • Farmed Atlantic salmon = bad: Avoid it.
  • Wild Alaskan Pacific salmon = good: Go for it!
  • All else = touchy: Look for an MSC or Oceanwise label
  • Farmed salmon raised in closed tanks = ok, but tricky to find.

Here are some salmon recipes from around the web:

  • Broiled Sockeye Salmon with Citrus Glaze from Alton Brown
  • Miso Salmon with Cilantro Salsa from Whole Living
  • Blueberry-candied Wild Salmon from the Ocean Wise Cookbook
  • Salmon Tartare and Black Sesame Tartlets from the Marine Stewardship Council
  • Salmon with Fennel Vanilla and Olives from Blue Water Cafe

Do you cook with salmon? Do you look at the label to see where it came from? How easy is it to find sustainable salmon where you shop? Shopping tips? Please share your thoughts!

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