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.