The Gourmet Q + A: Jon Rowley

June 2007
Gourmet contributing editor Jon Rowley began his seafood education as a young man hungry for oysters in Paris and went on to become a fisherman in his home state of Alaska. He introduced Copper River salmon to the lower 48 states in 1983 and has helped form the oyster culture of the Pacific Northwest.

What are the differences between wild and farmed salmon?

Jon Rowley: Salmon are what they eat. Farmed salmon swim around and around in enclosed pens and are fed formulated pellets on a feeding schedule. Pigments are added to the feed to give them red-colored meat. Wild salmon, depending on the species, forage in the open ocean for small crustaceans, herring, and other small fish, squid, and shrimp. They are anadromous, meaning they spawn in freshwater and live in saltwater. Each river represents a different genetic stock within the species. Once salmon enter freshwater on their upstream journey, they stop feeding and depend on stored energy reserves. Longer rivers like the Yukon (almost 2,000 miles) or rivers with difficult terrain like the Copper River, in Alaska, require more stored energy in the form of fats and oils. Those energy reserves give wild salmon its flavor and succulence and make it one of the best natural sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Today, wild salmon come mostly from the Pacific, and there are five species: king (sometimes called chinook), sockeye (red), coho (silver), pink (humpback), and chum (keta).

Is there still such a thing as wild Atlantic salmon?

JR: Wild Atlantic salmon, like Pacific salmon, spawn in freshwater and spend their life at sea. Also like Pacific salmon, Atlantic salmon are genetically adapted to return to their river of origin and depend on healthy watersheds for spawning and survival. Most wild Atlantic salmon runs have succumbed to loss of spawning habitat, pollution of the rivers, and oversilting of the spawning grounds from logging, overfishing, and man-made impediments such as dams. Wild Atlantic salmon runs still occur in less populated regions where spawning river conditions are favorable. The North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization, of which the United States is a member, guides the efforts to restore wild salmon populations where possible in the Northwest Atlantic. To that end, all commercial fishing of Atlantic salmon, except for limited local use in Greenland and parts of Canada, has been curtailed since 2002. The privately funded international North Atlantic Salmon Fund has focused efforts on buying out commercial fishing interests in Europe. An upturn in numbers of returning salmon recently in Canada, Iceland, Scotland, and other countries may be an indication that conservation and habitat-restoration efforts are paying off.

What about organic salmon?

JR: “Organic” salmon is currently the subject of much debate and political wrangling. At this time, there is officially no such thing as organic salmon in the U.S., yet you can find farmed salmon labeled “organic” in some markets. The USDA has no standards for organic salmon, but both the USDA and the FDA are turning a blind eye to organic salmon certified in other jurisdictions and even to labels reading “organic certification pending” or “natural.”

Jon, you were the marketing force behind Copper River salmon. Are the flavor, texture, and fat content really all that different from wild Pacific salmon from other areas?

JR: Absolutely. First, I should clarify that Copper River king salmon and Copper River sockeye salmon, both running at the same time, are very different fish with different sizes, appearances, eating characteristics, and pricing. I was involved with bringing the first fresh Copper River king salmon to market in 1983 at a time when most of this fish was canned or frozen for export to Japan. It was clear to everyone who tasted the fish from the very first trial shipment to a few Seattle restaurants that the fish had a brilliant future ahead in the marketplace. It was noticeably different in flavor, texture, and mouthfeel from other king salmon available at the time. Some of this difference had to do with the on-board handling program I arranged with the fishermen, but the Copper River king is genetically programmed to produce the oils needed to conquer the surging downflow of turbulent rapids and wild canyons of the Copper River. The Copper River is only 300 miles long, but because it drops nearly 4,000 feet, it makes up in turbulence what it lacks in length. The Copper River king is a fat-bellied, well-muscled thoroughbred. With its short four-week season, demand is very strong and prices high. Be aware that not all “Copper River salmon” is Copper River king salmon or even from the Copper River . Know your fishmonger.

And stay tuned for developments to get the Yukon River king, even higher in oil, to the fresh market. For the first time in the history of that fishery, ice is being used on the small open skiffs in the remote lower Yukon, a step necessary to keep a fish with so much oil supple and resilient after going through rigor mortis.

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