The Wild Salmon Debate

By David Dobbs, March/April 2008

A fresh look at farmed vs. wild.

"This is such a thorough, informative, and valuable--not to mention very well-written--article. Thank you! It is just what I was looking for to get the facts on this matter. Thank you and bless you, David Dobbs. "

How Is Wild Salmon Different from Farmed Salmon?

The algorithm starts with the fish’s rhythm—the arc of its life. Imagine before you a salmon steak freshly plated: orange, warm, aromatic. You ordered wild tonight, so your fish is one of the five species of Pacific salmons, genus Oncorhynchus; it must be Pacific because the fishery for wild Atlantics (Salmo salar, a different genus altogether) is long kaput. (More on that shortly.)

The Pacifics most commonly caught—chum, coho and sockeye, chinooks and pinks (the pinks mostly for canning)—occupy huge ranges. Chum and sockeye run up rivers and off coasts from California to Kyoto. Cohos run thick from British Columbia up through Alaska. And the magnificent chinook, three feet long and sandbag heavy—also known as king, tyee, blackmouth—swim sparse in San Francisco, profusely in the Columbia River and Puget Sound, and in Alaska run abundant, climbing as far as 2,000 miles up the Yukon to spawn. All Pacific salmon are anadramous, spending their youngest days in rivers and their youths and adult lives at sea. When it comes time to spawn, most Pacific Northwest salmon will do so only in their natal streams, making each watershed’s population distinct and vulnerable to extinction if a dam or other insult wipes them out. In the Pacific Northwest and western Canada, where dams have knocked down some populations, the fisheries are faring poorly. In Alaska, the wild-salmon fishery is one of the world’s best-managed and populations are robust.

Let’s say you ordered an Alaskan king. Imagine, on an autumn day a few years go, this fish’s mother, three feet long, greenish with a red snout and almost brutally muscular, surging up the Yukon River. She swims for 60 days up the Yukon, then finds a gravelly spot, swishes out with her tail a shallow depression (called a redd), and with a splash and a thrash lays as many as ten thousand orange-red roe. Presently an attending male, perhaps several attending males, thrash and splash too, releasing skeins of milt over the roe.

The Healthy Difference: What Wild Salmon Eat »

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