Buying a fish at the fish counter in a grocery store is so disconnected from the reality, that it's often hard to imagine why a wild Alaskan salmon might be so much more expensive than a similar looking farmed salmon. But head out to Alaska and take a ride on a fishing boat, and the differences become clear quite quickly. We went to Juneau to get the real story behind Alaskan Wild Salmon.
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The life cycle of a salmon begins in fresh water, where they spawn and then incubate for a period of months. They head out to sea for three to five years and then depending on which of Alaska's five species they are -- King, Sockeye, Cohoe, chums or pinks -- they start coming back between the spring and early fall.
Commercial fisherman are heavily regulated in where and when they can catch salmon. Kirk Hardcastle, a salmon fisherman in Juneau pointed out that, "In the King season time we'll only get one or two day openings. During the sockeye season, when we're getting a lot more fish, we'll be able to fish for three or four days. A lot of people in the Lower 48 might think 'Don't you want to catch all the fish?' No, we don't want to catch all the fish. We want them to reproduce, we want the fish to escape."
Once the fish are caught, it's the handling that can further differentiate the quality -- processing is affected by supplier. Higher end suppliers pride themselves on having the fish on a plane and onto your plate within 24 hours. For the majority, since it is seasonal, most year-round salmon is frozen. But since most of the salmon processing is done right when the fish come off the boat within Alaska, they are handled and frozen immediately to maintain their quality.
Stabilizing the Population:
Beyond the catch laws, Alaska has implemented further measures to ensure population stability. Because extreme weather can impact the numbers of salmon, Alaska has salmon hatcheries that supplement the number of salmon in the wild. 'What we try and do is supplement the peaks and valleys." says Douglas Prestegard of the Douglas Island Pink & Chum hatchery. "Our stock is no different. There is a genetics policy within the state of Alaska that we have to follow and one of the keys is that the stocks should be within 50 miles"
The hatcheries start with eggs from local fish. They go into incubators in August, are reared and then released in March. These hatchery salmon are still considered wild for consumers because most of their life -- and all of their ocean life -- is in the wild. Depending on the year, usually around 30 percent of the overall salmon catch is from hatcheries
While this level of sustainability is important to consumers, there would be much less advantage without actual qualitative differences. While the handling also effects the quality of the product, the actual life cycle of a wild salmon wholly differentiates it from farmed salmon. Farmed salmon live in a pen their whole life whereas wild or hatchery salmon compete in the wild. As Hardcastle points out, "If you're actively avoiding a predator your meat's firm, you're a natural food out there and the texture is just a lot more firm."
Fishermen in Alaska are quick to point out that farmed salmon brings fish to the masses and as such has done a lot of good. But for the real deal, there's just nothing like a true wild salmon.