Copper River got a head start on other areas in the state that also have very fine salmon, including Sitka and Bristol Bay. The promotional effort—instigated by Jon Rowley, a Seattle-based bon vivant, fish expert, and marketing wizard—began in 1983, before the oil spill and before the cataclysmic rise of farmed Atlantic salmon. Rowley told fishermen and processors: Make people understand the connection between where fish is caught and how it tastes, and make sure the fish is as good as it can be, by improving the ways it is caught, handled, stored, and shipped.
Rowley and others apply the idea of terroir—that you can taste geography in wine—to wild-caught fish, an appealing notion. But for diners what matters more than the geographic origin is the species (see box, “The Five Main Pacific Salmon”) and the fact that Pacific salmon is a wild animal that naturally builds muscle and forages for its food. It is not, in other words, confinement-raised “veal—as Glenn Hollowell, a former fisherman and now a biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, calls farmed Atlantic salmon. All salmon farming is outlawed in Alaska (Friends don’t let friends eat farmed fish, goes one T-shirt slogan).
Hatcheries may seem a lot like fish farms, but Hollowell and others I spoke with drew a very large distinction between the two. For several months, Alaskan hatcheries feed fry, which are bred from wild stocks near their natural spawning grounds. The fish are then set free to forage like their counterparts in the open seas. The release of hatchery fish into the ocean, Hollowell told me, has helped Alaskan salmon fishing to survive as an industry, by reducing pressure on wild stocks.
Do hatchery salmon taste different? Although the department is able to tell which are hatchery fish (a changing of the water temperature at the hatchery in the first month of their lives creates an identifiable mark on their earbones), buyers and diners can’t. Hollowell, and a number of fishermen, insisted to me that hatchery fish are indistinguishable from completely wild ones in terms of both appearance and eating quality. Hatchery fish, Hollowell said, gain 99.9 percent of their weight while feeding in the ocean, and “thus are essentially wild salmon.”
The other important distinction for diners is the care with which salmon is caught and processed from the moment its snout hits a net. As part of his original marketing strategy, Jon Rowley advocated then-avant-garde methods that have now become almost standard: pulling up nets frequently, so fish don’t die in the net or bleed internally, which damages flavor; bleeding, eviscerating, and chilling them immediately, rather than hours or even days later; shipping them directly to customers or delivering them to the processing plant rather than to tenders hired by the plants, thus reducing the time salmon waits before being “H and G’d,” or “headed and gutted.” Bringing ice on board was itself a novelty for many fishermen, and so was immediate bleeding and eviscerating. Both are part of keeping fish in the condition that chefs talk about with gusto, “pre-rigor,” so that they can be cooked soon after going through rigor mortis, ensuring the finest texture and freshest flavor.
Some fishermen in Cordova are now shipping their catches directly to chefs. I watched Bill Webber, a boatbuilder in winter and high-tech fisherman in season, execute the “princess cut—trimming off the head in a graceful curve—at cutting stations onboard his boat, which he has also outfitted with a special tube to transport fish to a holding tank with circulating fresh seawater, so they don’t get bruised. Webber, a third-generation Cordova fisherman, has taken fishing to entrepreneurial heights: from his boat he e-mails pictures of fish he has caught to chefs to ask which ones they want; he uses insulated bubble-wrap liners for shipping boxes, at a cost of $4.50 each, to extend the frozen life of his ice packs; and he drives the boxes to the airport for Alaska Airlines and FedEx’s “Gold Rush Service,” so that the fish can arrive at restaurants within forty-eight hours of being taken out of the water.
Other fishermen are also improving their processing methods in order to maintain a market in a world of farmed fish. Some processing plants pay a premium for fish iced on the boat; they transport salmon from boats to plants through vacuum tubes rather than with the one-tined pitchforks on display in the Cordova museum.
But the cost of the freshness ensured by expensive box liners and rush service is high (even aside from the cost per fish of sparkling specimens, and the $35 and up restaurants charge diners per portion). Farmed salmon may be unpalatable, prone to disease, bad for the seabeds their waste pollutes, and dangerous for wild stocks. Already, escaped farmed Atlantic salmon have extensively interbred with the few remaining wild stocks in the North Atlantic, and might even be penetrating Pacific populations. British Columbia, adjacent to Alaska, does allow fish farming, and farms both Atlantic and Pacific salmon; Atlantic salmon have frequently been reported to be swimming in Alaskan waters.
But farmed fish must be taken into serious consideration by any ecologically and economically conscious cook. Wild stocks of any fish cannot be taken for granted, as Charles Clover writes in The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat (in a very brief appendix on choosing fish, similar to the guides issued by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, at www.mbayaq.org, Clover puts Pacific salmon on his list of “Fish to Eat With a Clear Conscience”), and fish farms offer a way of providing affordable protein to the world’s population.
Are any wild salmon allowed to be harvested in the winter? Yes, I learned: chinook salmon caught in the open sea by troller boats while the fish are still feeding and not fully grown. But the method is painstaking, and the boats small and, in the winter, few; last year just 1 percent of the Alaska catch was troll caught, whereas “wild salmon” is now on restaurant menus year-round. Chances are very good that anything you order from now until next June will have been farmed or frozen, unless the chef knows what “troll caught” means and the entrée is expensive. This winter I plan to quiz chefs and their vendors about species and catching methods, to gauge whether fraud to chefs is as common as fraud to shoppers—and then wait till May to eat salmon. I left Cordova convinced not only that I should avoid farmed salmon but also that I should look for salmon that’s Alaskan, in the summer and early fall. Yes, it’s a short season for such a great food I could be happy eating every day. But at least it’s longer than tomato season.