2000s Archive

The Wild and the Farmed

Originally Published September 2002
On a coast-to-coast quest, Barry Estabrook discovers—in addition to amazing wild sockeye gravlaks—that all is not well below the surface of the aquaculture industry.

Doug Adams has snagged his gill net on a submerged log, putting us at a distinct disadvantage in this game of chicken between 1,000 or so boats jammed into the mouth of the Naknek River, each trying for its share of the annual run of sockeye salmon. The result is a snarl of 32-foot aluminum vessels, one of which is headed straight for us. A good number of the guys out here are capable of ramming us out of sheer spite. Doug hollers, pointing to the taut net line off our stern.

As I brace myself for an icy plunge, I find it hard to believe that I am participating in one of the world’s most strictly controlled fisheries, the only American fishery to have earned the Marine Stewardship Council’s seal of approval for being well managed and sustainable, the one fishery in the country that has finally gotten it right. The Naknek, like all of Alaska’s salmon fisheries, is governed by stringent environmental controls that determine when the fleet can fish to assure that a daily quota of salmon make it upstream to spawn. Biologists monitoring the salmon run open and close the “season”—often on short notice—one, two, even three times in a 24-hour period, creating a land-rush mentality in which a certain amount of testosterone is a prerequisite for a good catch.

The guy coming at us is showing that he has plenty of that, but, luckily, he finally realizes that our problem isn’t bullheadedness and spins his wheel just far enough for his bow to pass a few feet in front of ours, saying, as he passes, “Not a good day.”

That’s putting it mildly. Doug’s snagged net is ruined, and the fish aren’t running. Even if they were, farmed salm­on has driven prices so low that Doug says he might just as well quit fishing. Today, though, there’s hope for a consolation prize. Doug has landed a few fish, so he can fulfill his promise to deliver a dozen sockeye to his friend Heidi Wolf, who runs a cottage business selling smoked salmon, mainly to visiting sportfishermen.

I know we’re near her place when the playful spiciness of wood smoke tickles my nostrils. After the transfer of fish, Heidi, a no-nonsense German, scolds Doug for not having visited her recently and insists we make amends by coming and sampling her wares. “Gravlaks like we made in Europe,” she says. “I cold-smoke it with wood from around here and some plants I find on the tundra.” She offers me a slice on the point of her knife and waits for my reaction with a sly smile.

I suspect Heidi knows exactly how people will react to their first taste of wild sockeye gravlaks. All I can do is moan and let the smoke and salmon romance each other. Notes of herb, wood, and wild berries toy with, but never dominate, the briny pungency of the fish. Heidi has the good sense to let the salmon, with its striking blood-red flesh, speak for itself—earth, forest, river, estuary, and ocean—the legacy of a magnificent creature born in the gravel beds of a glacial mountain river. The sockeye is a sleek, silver-sided predator at the top of the Pacific food chain, driven by a primal homing instinct to cross thousands of miles of open ocean to mate and then die in the river of its birth. And this is far and away the best piece of fish I’ve ever tasted.

After a winter of eating the farm-raised Atlantic salmon that is always in the seafood case at my local supermarket, I had started to think that my mind was playing Proustian tricks, that what I remembered as the essential salmon taste was a nostalgic construct. Had salmon always been those pale, pinkish-orange fillets so shapely and uniform that the species might as well have evolved to look nice against a background of shaved ice and plastic watercress? Fresh, always available, full of omega-3 fatty acids, at $3.99 a pound often the cheapest fish in the display case.

I bought a piece of farmed Atlantic salmon as soon as I got back from Alaska. The flesh was mushy and bland, bearing as much resemblance to the wild salmon I’d eaten in Naknek as a hard January tomato does to a homegrown beefsteak still warm from an August garden. What forces could transform a special treat into tasteless “chicken of the sea”? I wanted to find out.

That’s how I ended up swatting blackflies one June morning at the Atlantic Salmon of Maine hatchery an hour or so west of Bangor. Hatchery manager David Miller and I were leaning over a tank a little smaller than a hot tub. It held 4,000 pinkie-size fingerlings schooled in a dark green mass, snouts pointed into a gentle, artificial current. Every minute or so, a few grains of food trickled automatically from a stainless-steel dispenser.

The previous fall, technicians had extracted eggs and sperm from the parents of these fingerlings, stirred the gametes together in plastic trays, and thereby conceived a new generation of Maine Strain salmon. Don’t bother looking up Maine Strain in your field guide. Nature would never have cobbled together such a creature. For 10,000 years, evolution has shaped salmon into distinct populations, each genetically unique to a specific river. Maine Strain was formulated by mingling species from the St. John and Penobscot rivers in Maine with a European variety called Landcatch. The result is a salmon that fattens nicely while circling a 100-foot pen fin to fin with thousands of identical fish.

Fish farmers haven’t been able to breed out every wild trait. Maine Strain still live part of their lives in freshwater and part in salt water. For a young Alaska salmon, the journey to the sea can be treacherous, shooting through rapids and tumbling down waterfalls. Farmed salmon make the trip in specially designed tanks on the back of tractor-trailers. I caught up with Miller’s smolts after they had settled into their saltwater net pens at Atlantic Salmon of Maine’s Swans Island farms.

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