Photo: anglerp1, Flickr
For you eaters who avoid farm-raised salmon and instead seek out wild-caught varieties, your job just got a little more complicated.
According to The Oregonian, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program has assigned a red "avoid" recommendation to wild-caught California and Oregon salmon, based on continued low levels of salmon returning to the Sacramento River. While that advice may seem clear cut, the change in recommendations can be confusing.
The avoid rating for Oregon salmon applies only to fish caught south of Cape Falcon. It does not apply to the entire state of Oregon. That's because there are two different salmon stocks being fished on the Pacific coast -- those that spawn in the Sacramento River, where stock levels have been troubled in recent years; and salmon fished from the Columbia River, thought to have moderately healthy population levels.
"This is not an overfishing issue," says Ken Peterson, spokesman for the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Rather, he says it's a complex combination of circumstances that range from changes in the food supply, water management activity like dams or concrete canals contributing to limited returns, land use issues like logging, and more.
In April, the Pacific Fishery Management Council approved quotas for commercial and recreational salmon fishing off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. PFMC officials place forecasts for the population of adult salmon at 245,500. That number is significantly higher than recent years, when alarmingly low salmon levels on the the Sacramento River led to the largest fishery closure on record. In 2009, only 39,000 fish, less than one-third of the projected 122,000 to 188,000 salmon returned to spawn. The move by officials to open limited commercial and recreational fishing on the Sacramento River helped prompt the change in rating by Seafood Watch.
"We're taking a precautionary approach," says Peterson. "We want to see the returns and to see the fishery in better shape. If they don't get the returns, they're just compounding a dire situation for the fish."
While most of the salmon served at Portland, Oregon-based Higgins Restaurant and Bar is purchased from a fishing cooperative in Sitka, Alaska, chef and owner Greg Higgins says he plans to adhere to the new Seafood Watch guidelines. His advice for consumers is to ask the right questions -- but knowing whether or not the fish originated from the Sacramento River or Columbia River stock could prove difficult.
"I buy right from the fishermen, so I know where my fish is coming from. It's not a gray area for us, but the consumer is one or two steps removed. The fish moves from the fishermen to the distributor to the store, and its origins can be lost in all those transactions," says Higgins. "People need to ask the right questions and get good information about the product they're buying."
Wild-caught salmon from Washington state maintained a "Good Alternative" rating, as did wild salmon from Alaska that sports a green "Best Choice" designation.