Wild Sex, Death,
and Guilt-free Dining
by Kate Heyhoe
Bruised and battered, the migrants arrive at their final destination. with backs once straight but now humped and distorted, they crash through thunderous waterfalls and rock-encrusted rapids. On empty bellies they dodge the crushing jaws and spear-like claws of giant famished bears, seeking to replenish their own nutrients lost in winter's slumber. Yet, despite crossing hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles, our determined travelers never rest.
Even at journey's end, they rally their last bolts of energy for one final spectacular ritual of genetically programmed mating. They've been here before, born en masse and now about to die en masse. A female, typical of her kind, nestles her bottom into the gravel, tossing up dirt and sand in a whirl that attracts weary but willing suitors.
The chosen male touches her, nosing about her flanks, quivering along her sides. with bellies touching and mouths gaping, they nestle deeper into the ground. Undulating rhythmically, she pours out thousands of perfectly spherical bubbles, and he in turn adorns them with a milky-white cloud. Then, using her powerful lower body to shovel sand and gravel, she creates an incubator for this, the next generation. But the couple is not done yet. Moving to new locales, they repeat this ritual again and again, until they slowly succumb to their own exhaustion.
These are not kinky religious zealots practicing mass suicide, sacrificing their lives with a sip of poisoned Kool-Aid or igniting themselves in a blaze of extreme devotion. These are not humans, and they are not aliens.
These beasts are salmon—performing a ritual of death amid a miracle of survival—and they do it every year. Or, at least some do.
Desperately Seeking Salmon
Most of the salmon served in restaurants and sold in supermarkets are not wild, like the ones described above, but farm-raised. They never make the dramatic migration upstream from seawater to river but instead are born, fed, wed and bred in fisheries. Salmon farms have achieved such success that cooks can not only find fresh salmon year-round in local A&P's and Safeways, but the fish are increasingly more affordable. I recently saw a fresh half-salmon advertised at a low $1.97 per pound, making it pound-for-pound, protein-per-protein, more economical than boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
Wild salmon on the other hand are, quite literally, rare. At least nine species native to the Pacific Northwest have officially been listed as endangered (meaning any species which is at risk of extinction) or threatened (meaning they are likely to become an endangered species); some have already become extinct. The issue extends coast to coast: Maine's once thriving salmon population has dwindled so much that in November 2000, Atlantic salmon in eight Maine rivers were declared endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. and the world's salmon face similar threats. In Nova Scotia, more fish habitats, including those of the Atlantic salmon, have been decimated by acid rain than in any place in North America. Salmon preservation groups are active in Canada, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Newfoundland, New Zealand, Iceland and Norway. Salmon can also be found in varying numbers in France, Spain, Russia, Japan, Finland and parts of South America.
Politically speaking, Alaskan salmon is one of the most desirable species to eat, according to the National Audubon Society. The reason: Alaskan salmon continues to thrive in great numbers. But how long this will last? Salmon stocks in other parts have succumbed due to such factors as unrestricted hydropower, aluminum and oil refining, barge transportation, irrigated agriculture, mining, logging and urban run-off. If the same conditions occur in Alaska's pristine territories, then their salmon as well as other species could rapidly join their brethren on the endangered list. As an optimist and an armchair activist, I'm hoping we all take precautions to make sure this doesn't happen, and this includes knowing what types of salmon to eat and which ones to avoid.
Fish Scales and Sales
Interestingly, the National Audubon Society recommends buying wild Alaskan salmon over hatchery-raised salmon, not based on taste or price, but because of environmental concerns. They've created an educational tool called a "Fish Scale" to advise consumers on the eco-conditions of all fish, including salmon.
Good salmon: On the Audubon fish scale, wild Alaskan salmon are placed in the green area (meaning they're okay to buy). These fish are abundant, with rivers clean and healthy enough to support salmon habitats and breeding. Alaskan fisheries also help by practicing good management: they don't begin catching fish until the requisite number of salmon necessary to spawn and replenish the population has advanced upstream.
Conditionally good salmon: In the yellow or mid-section of the scale are farmed salmon, but only those that have been "pen-rotated" to reduce disease and pollution problems. They're bred and raised in captivity and sent directly to market, never mingling with wild species unless by accident some "escapees" are released. Farmed fish are, however, subject to antibiotics, pesticides and disinfectants. In some cases the farms quarantine the fish in clean water to purge their systems of such additives before bringing them to market, and these are the most desirable of the farm-raised types, though it's virtually impossible for a consumer to know how the fish was farmed.
Bad salmon: Because of their dwindling population, West Coast wild salmon and Atlantic salmon understandably anchor the red or 'definite no-no' zone. Ironically, though, because these salmon survival rates are related to environmental damage and not over-fishing, the fisheries themselves are some of the most vocal activists for environmental preservation and salmon conservation.
Very bad salmon: Finally, at the rock-bottom of the heap, in the red-as-the-devil end, are the evil "hatchery-raised salmon." Unlike farm-raised salmon which are bred entirely in captivity, the hatchery's salmon eggs are hatched and the young fish are then released into streams. The upshot is that they force wild salmon to compete against them, thus depressing the native fish's survival.
At this point, I'm almost feeling guilty about eating salmon, and probably you are too. But we shouldn't be. Plenty of politically-correct salmon exist to feed fine diners and sport anglers alike. The key is knowing which salmon are thriving and to limit our consumption to these fine finned creatures.
The National Audubon's book Seafood Lover's Almanac recommends buying the following salmon species:
- Steelhead trout (a close relative of salmon)
Of course, these fish are recommended provided their habitats and breeding conditions fall within the approved fish scale ranges defined above. But how can you tell?
Chances are the fish monger at your local supermarket (if it has one) will stare blankly at you when you ask: "Where does this fish come from?" or "How was it raised?" But I started asking these questions, and now the fish buyer asks the supplier, and usually I get an enthusiastic response. In fact, they appear genuinely pleased that I take an interest in the fish and they seem to enjoy sharing their knowledge.
So I continue to buy salmon and I look forward to new and inspiring ways to serve it. Usually I buy farm-raised from the Atlantic or when I can find it, wild from Alaska. Fine Norwegian salmon also comes around from time to time. Whatever the source may be, salmon is one food that takes well to a world of global seasonings, as the recipes included below show.
Saving and managing salmon species may seem tough, but if they can travel hundreds of miles upstream, surely we can give them a push.
Kate's Global Kitchen for April, 2001:
04/07/01 Wild Sex, Death, and Guilt-free Dining
04/14/01 Cures for the Spring Ham-Over
04/21/01 Dining with Joe...Cooking with Coffee
04/28/00 Little Korean Dishes
Copyright © 2001, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created April 2001