In Alaska, sustainable seafood isn’t just a way of life. It’s the law. “Fish must be utilized, developed and maintained on the sustained yield principal,” reads the line in Alaska’s state constitution, penned in 1959 upon becoming America’s 49th state. It’s the only legislation in the United States requiring its citizens — from weekend anglers to million-dollar commercial operations — to treat natural resources in a truly un-American way. With measure and restraint.
“I love wild salmon for the story,” says Tom Douglas, a prolific Seattle chef and cookbook author who runs more than 20 restaurants, many with a seafood focus. “Every fish tells a story, every stream they come from has a unique environment, and that enhances the story of the fish.” But at the end of the day, when running fish restaurants, the story will only go so far. The fish needs to be delicious, and Douglas thinks wild species taste better. “The free-swimming fish has better bite and muscle structure than flabby farm fish. Period.”
On a recent visit to Juneau, and aboard commercial vessels working Alaska’s southeast inner passage, I found not only passion and state pride, but some of the finest examples of salmon, halibut and shellfish I’ve tasted in the world. Seafood caught in Alaska accounts for 60 percent of the country’s output (and 90 percent of the wild salmon yield), though many don’t associate Alaska-caught species with “eating local” — a food-world cliché that helped launch a revolution and at least a thousand versions of the “everything comes from within 90 miles” tasting menu.
As somebody living on the East Coast, Alaska feels like a pretty far-away place. So logically, there are psychological hurdles for the proud locavore chef to serve Alaska seafood not sourced within their time zone. And coupled with the affordability and richness of farm-raised salmon simultaneously capturing the public’s attention, it turns out that wild Alaskan seafood needs to work extra hard these days to stay in the minds, and on the cedar planks, of the salmon-loving citizens of the United States.
Much of this task falls on the small and scrappy staff working at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, a government- and private-funded organization that invited me up in late July to tag along during the peak of summer salmon-fishing season, when the local rivers swell with fish heading home to their spawning streams to complete their two-year life cycle. Tyson Fick is communications director, and like many of his colleagues at ASMI, comes from a commercial fishing background. So witnessing the press guy, dressed in yellow waders, navigate a hand-cranked trolling rig (hooking a couple 15-pound coho salmon), all the while reciting oceanic chemistry statistics from memory, is not unusual for an operation staffed by people with salt water running through their veins.
“Having a direct connection to the people who take our seafood to market and the places our fish come from is vital to bringing credibility and authenticity to the work we do telling the terrific story of Alaska seafood,” says Fick, whose main objective is to make sure that consumers have the best and most accurate information about Alaska seafood. Also, to bring chefs and personalities like Anito Lo, Elizabeth Falkner and Ruth Reichl up to Alaska, ply them with cold cans of Rainier and as much wild salmon, halibut and spot prawns as humanly possible in the hope that the scales will eventually be tipped. A staggering 90 percent of salmon consumed in America is imported, while Alaska is currently seeing peak output during its current season.
But before the season can open — its dates slide depending on the species from May to October — government officials need to determine just how many fish made it home, traveling thousands of miles from the open ocean to the streams of their birth to spawn. The data collection, which is instrumental in maintaining a sustainable yield level (remember, it’s the law), involves the use of high-tech radar technology, where planes fly over rivers to calculate the density of fish. But more primitive approaches are also used, including Alaska Department of Fish and Game employees perching in towers high above busy rapids, literally counting the fish one by one.
The results of this rigorous process allow the department to police the state’s licensed fishing fleet, restricting the size of boats and type of gear used. It also creates a perpetual “season within a season” where fisherman are told, sometimes at a moment’s notice, where they can fish and where they can’t. Called “fisheries,” these specific bodies of water are open for days, but sometime for as little as hours.
The boat captains hang on the daily fishery announcements, and when given the go-ahead are forced to grab what they can, in the limited time allowed, and then store their haul in a slushy tank of near-freezing salt water. Once the boat’s hold is filled to the brim with thousands of coho and pinks, the sleep-deprived fishermen unload on larger boats called tender ships, where the fish are sorted, counted and credited.
Anchored at the mouth of Hawk Inlet, off Admiralty Island at the intersection of Icy Strait and Chatham Strait, I’m standing on the bridge of the Commander, where the boat’s captain, Alan Otness, is overseeing the offloading of thousands of pounds of fish. “My dad is 90 years old; my father-in-law is 90 years old; my mother is 88,” says the 55-year-old captain when pressed for a single reason why eating Alaskan seafood is a good choice in life. His son-in-law had fixed a lunch of freshly caught halibut a few hours earlier. Up since 3:30 a.m. that morning, Otness was hoping to take a shower and spend the night on land before setting off on the 14-hour journey to Petersberg. “We have a pretty good idea of what is going to open,” he says, looking past the stern into open water. “But the idea is to be as centrally located, because you never know.”
But as Tom Douglas stresses, this incredible natural resource is in danger if the public doesn’t get a little smarter about their sources for seafood: “If we don’t support and protect Alaskan seafood, like the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run for example, we end up losing the fishery. We lose fishing jobs, fish processing jobs and the livelihood of the indigenous people.”
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The 5 Species of Wild Alaskan Salmon
Salmon is most certainly not simply salmon, especially when it’s caught wild. As opposed to farm-raised species, typically imported from overseas and oftentimes unnaturally plump and flabby — and in some studies lacking the same concentration of critical omega-3 fatty acids — the flesh of a wild fish is firm and muscular, with a cleaner taste that chefs covet. Granted, the major drawback of wild versus farm is that farm is more often available fresh, while wild product sourced from Alaska is typically frozen at the many processing facilities lining the shores and harbors. But with a premium placed on cutting-edge freezing technology, very little of the salmon’s salmon-ness is lost. Whether you are ordering at a restaurant or checking out your favorite fish shop, there are defining characteristics for each of the five species of salmon — which, as you will see, go by a variety of names. Here’s a rundown of what you need to know about each species (with the nickname in parentheses):
The largest and most prized of all the species, typically between 20 and 60 pounds each. Kings are often the first salmon caught during the season, which starts around May. “I ate Alaskan troll-caught king salmon three times this week and wondered why I’d waited so long,” wrote Mark Bittman in a 2010 come-to-Jesus column. “There is no better finfish.” High in oil content, the king is often what you will find on the sushi bar. That is, it’s good enough to eat raw. “I love cooking with king for its luscious character and fat content, without it being flabby,” says Seattle chef Tom Douglas. King salmon is also the inspiration for a poorly received 1993 Sega Genesis video game.
As the “Red” nickname name suggests, the flesh of sockeye is its defining characteristic: bright red that remains a desirable shade even when cooked. This is a big reason that seafood-focused chefs covet it when it’s in season. “It’s a gorgeous fish,” says New York City chef Anita Lo, who has fished for salmon in Alaska the past two seasons. Due to its color, sockeye is also used extensively in canning. It’s also the salmon used for that Sunday brunch staple, lox. “I love it for its intense color, firm texture and strong fish flavor,” says Douglas.
With a definitive silver skin and reddish-orange flesh, coho is often considered the best-tasting salmon species. It’s also the angler’s choice, as coho are known to put up a fight. While the fat content is not as high as the king, it’s considerably higher than pinks and chums. “Balanced” is also a term that is thrown around. While coho is abundant in Alaska, it’s less so in Canadian waters, thus the lion’s share of coho served in the U.S. comes from the 49th state.
One of the workhorse species, and priced lower than king and sockeye, chum is defined by its pinkish flesh and lower fat content. It’s often smoked or dried. But chum is most well known for its valuable eggs. Called ikura in Japan, the tiny, yolky eggs are harvested, then tumble-cured in a brining liquid and packaged. High-quality ikura can sell for as much as $100 per kilo.
Extremely lean and delicate, pinks are the most commonly caught wild salmon in Alaska — and also the smallest, around six to seven pounds each. Due to the sheer volume of pinks heading upstream during the spawning season, the fish found in the rivers and streams are sometimes damaged (battered and bruised from overcrowding). This is why pinks are primarily used for canning or as bait to catch larger fish.