Why Wild Salmon? – by Chef Bryan Szeliga

  • By Chef Bryan Szeliga

    Ten million years of migration, dispersal and evolution created genetically unique species and populations of wild salmon in many river systems across the North Pacific Rim. In 1894 our notion of wild salmon began to change when the first salmon hatchery on the Columbia River was built. Hatcheries now release five billion salmon into the Pacific Ocean every year and these salmon are considered ‘wild’ as defined by seafood distributors and consumers alike.

    Currently, at the grocery store there are only 2 types of salmon to choose from: farm-raised (typically Atlantic salmon) and wild Pacific salmon. Unbeknownst to the average consumer, ‘wild salmon’ includes native salmon (born in rivers) and hatchery produced salmon (born in captivity).

    The Seattle-based Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association (PSVOA) will pay Washington Division of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) $157,825 per year to operate a salmon hatchery. Also, the US Mitchell Act allocates $11.5 million annually though federal appropriations in the Columbia River basin to operate 18 hatcheries. Hatchery salmon can stray from hatcheries and reproduced in natural river habitat. These hatchery stays can genetically disrupt wild salmon populations. Hatchery salmon mask the fact that as of today over 400 genetically unique populations of salmon in the US Pacific Northwest (nearly 30%) are now extinct.

    The reality is there are three categories of salmon: wild, farm-raised, and hatchery. Wild fish are born in rivers and are genetic descendants of the salmon that spawned in the same river ten million years ago. Farm-raised salmon are born in captivity and raised in ocean pens until large enough for harvest. Hatchery salmon are also born in captivity, but are released into rivers as juveniles. When hatchery salmon are caught in the ocean and sold at market, they are billed as a ‘wild salmon’. In the Pacific Northwest over 80 percent of ‘wild salmon’ are products of hatcheries. In Alaska over 31 percent of ‘wild salmon’ are hatchery produced.

    There are however, still a few places in the Pacific Northwest where a genetically native species of salmon exist and continue to thrive and reproduce. The most notable is Bristol Bay, Alaska where up to 60 million native salmon return every year to spawn! Knowing the difference between wild, hatchery, and farm-raised salmon is one way of understanding sustainability and helps promote the survival of the truly wild salmon for future generations. If today’s definition of ‘wild salmon’ continues to lump hatchery into the wild category then what we once knew from ten million years of evolution, like the salmon of Bristol Bay, will become extinct.

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