The Alaskan Pacific salmon runs comprise one of the purest sources of animal protein anywhere on our planet. Rich in omega-3 oils, fat-soluble vitamins and trace elements from the North Pacific, wild Pacific salmon are increasingly recognized by holistic and naturopathic physicians as extraordinarily valuable to a healthy diet.
The politics of this harvest should concern all of us who wish to eat this remarkable wild food. As a small boat fisher, I have seen the inroads made by large corporations first hand. I’ve been a fisherman since 1972, and have independently sold my fish since 1980.
The situation is analogous to that of the dairy industry, where declining prices offered by a few large conglomerates are squeezing out independent producers, and the solutions are the same–direct sales to educated consumers and new ways of marketing and consuming wild salmon products, such as roe.
In a reprise of the agribusiness takeover of land based agriculture, the small boat fishery which has historically harvested the North Pacific salmon resource is now faced with imminent corporate “rationalization.” Up the Pacific Coast, from Northern California to the Columbia River, from Puget Sound to British Columbia, from southeast Alaska to the Bering Sea, one hears similar stories. While retail prices for wild salmon remain high, prices for wild fish paid to the small boat fishers have plummeted to record lows. In 1973 commercial fishers received 32 cents a pound for pink salmon; by 2002 they were receiving only 6 cents per pound. These figures are not adjusted for inflation. Small independent fishing familes find themselves driven out by the economics of corporate control.
In British Columbia, hundreds of small family fishing operations have been forced out by a government-sponsored plan (the Mifflin plan) which transferred wild fish harvest opportunity from hundreds of small vessels to a handful of processor-controlled “purse seiners.” Ironically, the small vessels generally added more value to the fish, with on-board freezing and careful handing. Instead government policy encourages a low value, export-oriented harvest, in line with the priorities of the industry giants. Similar moves are currently afoot in Alaska and Puget Sound to similarly concentrate ownership and reduce employment. About 20,000 small fishers currently harvest salmon on the North American coast. Some industry analysts predict that this number will shrink by three quarters in the next decade.
Simultaneously, the BC government has encouraged the displacement of wild salmon runs by salmon farms, which produce salmon in densely populated floating feedlots. As in land-based industrial meat production, salmon farming is also plagued with continual disease outbreaks. The salmon farms must use large quantities of antibiotics and pesticides to maintain disease control amongst the crowded organisms. Parasites proliferate in the crowded pens. Many scientists (such as Alexandra Morton and John Volpe) believe that recent crashes in Irish and British Columbian wild fisheries are due to the biological invasion of the salmon farms. Moreover, the salmon farms routinely release Atlantic salmon into Pacific waters, exposing native stocks to new hazards. The increasingly known human health hazards of Atlantic salmon include human exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria, high levels of dioxin (Miriam Jacobs) and PCBs (Michael Easton), as well as possible retinal damage from ingestion of color additives.
As of 2002, 69 percent of world salmon production derives from salmon farming, up from a 2 percent market share for farmed salmon in 1982. Long term, this trend is unsustainable; between 2 and 4 pounds of wild fish must be harvested as fish feed (in poor areas of the planet) to produce 1 pound of farmed salmon (for a wealthy first world clientele). Thus the industry produces a net loss of protein for human consumption and an escalating impact on other vulnerable fisheries.
Compounding the problem for small wild fish harvesters is the fact that major processors are also distributors of farmed salmon. Multinational distributors have no loyalty to any particular indigenous stock of salmon; from their bottom-line perspective, farmed salmon simply give them a lever with which they can depress the price for wild fish paid to small independent fishers.
THE DIRECT MARKETING ALTERNATIVE
Taking organic farmers as our model, many small fishers, myself included, have moved away from the traditional fishing patronage of the large corporations. Instead of trying to catch more fish for a lower price, we strive to vertically integrate and retail our own catch. Since the early 1980s I have marketed my Alaskan and Puget Sound salmon and halibut to supermarkets, co-ops and directly to individuals. Farmers’ markets and off-the-boat sales provide new and rapidly growing venues for independent fishers. In Puget Sound, small boat fishers tax themselves 2 percent of their catch to fund their own commodities commission, which promotes direct sales to the public.
Recently, I have been involved in a major struggle to preserve Seattle’s historic commercial fishing harbor known as Fishermen’s Terminal against threatened gentrification. The terminal is a critical point of direct access to wild fish for the general public. Small boat fishers are increasingly using this harbor to direct market shrimp, salmon, tuna and halibut to the public.
In the Seattle area, several independent supermarkets have stopped selling farmed salmon and now sell only wild salmon, which is often purchased directly from small producers. This is a movement that has occurred within the last two years. These include Madison Market, the Olympia Food Co-op, Puget Consumers’ Co-op and Thriftway stores. In Portland, New Seasons markets also buys directly from fishers. In Oakland, Ver Brugge’s market has long supported small fishers. These stores vary somewhat in their commitment to buy directly from the producer, but respond to consumer pressure. It definitely helps to write letters or advocate directly to store managers regarding the wisdom of supporting small-scale food producers. Small independent chains have much more flexibility in their ability to buy directly from small farmers and fishers than the national chains such as Kroger’s or Costco.
Just in the last few years, many consumers have begun to understand that farmed salmon is essentially a synthetic product, subsidized by the destruction of wild ecosystems, and is no dietary equivalent to the wild salmon. (See, for example www.farmedanddangerous.org.) This change in consciousness has come about as a result of the educational campaigns of key environmental groups such as SeaWeb and Mangrove Action Project, independent scientists, small fishers and the holistic medical community. This has created a new market for our fish, similar to the new markets recently developed for organic produce and free-range animals.
Given the worries attendant the BSE, listeria and E.coli outbreaks, conscientious consumers now want to know where their animal protein comes from. This works directly to the advantage of small producers and against the entire direction of the commodity production model characteristic of the industrial meat pyramid. Consumers should demand chain-of-custody information from their food purveyor. Although many stores now specify whether salmon is wild or farmed, very few seafood managers can tell consumers who actually caught the product. An ethical and safe fish sales program should not only incorporate the biological sustainability criteria (as for example specified by the Marine Stewardship Council or the Monterey Aquarium), but it should also incorporate chain-of-custody information and, very importantly, a producer equity component (whether the fisher was paid a fair trade price for the product).
New processing technologies have made it possible for small fishers to sell their catch in ways which are consumer friendly. For example, my family sells much of our blast-frozen salmon in vacuum-packed, pin-bone-out portions which can be thawed and cooked in short order. (I enjoy making sashimi–raw,sliced salmon–from these previously frozen portions). This makes it possible for small, urban households to easily incorporate wild salmon into their weekly diet. We also market a low-salt smoked salmon, cured in a honey brine, ready to eat. These products are prepared for us by small, independent processors who service independent fishers like ourselves. In purchasing this portioned wild fish, consumers not only eat a healthy product, but also support an economic network of small local businesses.
If you have time (which is another way of saying that you have control over your life!) I suggest buying whole fish. It’s always more economical. If you don’t need to eat a whole fish, you can use a hack saw or a pruning saw and slice the frozen fish into roasts. Wrap your extra roasts in wet newspaper (it inhibits oxidation), put them in a plastic bag or aluminum foil and return them to the freezer.
Flash-frozen wild salmon maintain excellent flavor and are available year-round. You can either air-thaw these fish or cold water thaw them in a few hours. Fish heads and backbones make very nutritious soup stock. Typically, individuals from fish-based cultures (Filipino, Norwegian, Vietnamese) insist on the heads when they purchase whole salmon from me.
Consider using salmon roe in your diet; it’s nutrient-dense and delicious. Historically, the Japanese have been the major commodity consumers of salmon roe. The Japanese import roe as either ikura (brined loose eggs of the chum salmon which have been individually removed from the skein) or as sujiko (salted, compressed whole skeins of sockeye roe which is then sliced and used on rice). Native American peoples frequently dried whole skeins of roe for later use or allowed them to ferment before use. When I am fishing in Alaska I frequently start my day with fresh sockeye roe, fried in olive oil, with onions or garlic–it’s like a delicious, healthy little sausage. The organic community has just begun to discover the benefits of roe and I’m convinced we’re soon going to see many new product forms.
Despite the enormity of the political and economic problem that salmon harvesters currently face, I think we have reasons to be optimistic. Most critically, we have begun to build key alliances with pure food activists. I recently attended the Food Security Coalition Meetings in Seattle and was very heartened to see the tremendous progress made by organic, independent farmers in the direct marketing of their harvest.
Fishers are also moving in the same direction, and we will soon emancipate ourselves from the trap of mass production. We are in the process of setting up vehicles for direct sales of fair-traded salmon products. A website is in the works. Meanwhile, for sources, contact the Puget Sound Salmon Commission, psgsc (at) seanet.com, or myself, pete (at) lokifishco.com.
Dried or fermented fish roe–called bottargo in Italian–is a highly nutrient-dense storage food. Two cultures visited by Dr. Price considered dried fish roe a sacred food–the Eskimos in Alaska and the Indians of the Andes Mountains in Peru.
Dried salmon roe is a beautiful deep red, smells of the oceans and has a gluey-sticky texture. It can be sliced and mixed with grain dishes, chopped up and added to fish soups and sauces, or made into a paste and served on crackers or toast.
To make a delicious spread, place 4 ounces dried salmon roe (coarsely chopped), 1-2 ounces sun dried tomatoes, 1 tablespoon South River barley miso and 1/4 cup olive oil in a food processor. Process until smooth and season with a little lemon juice, garlic or cayenne pepper.
To order Pete Knutson’s dried wild salmon roe, call Superfoods (425) 831-5074.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2003.