Saving Chinook

By Jill Lightner
Editor’s note: Jill is hosting a Fall Harvest Meal at the Learning Center September 29-30 as part of our Sourdough Speaker Series. She is working with our chefs on a very special multi-course meal that will feature the best sustainable and delicious foods of the Skagit Valley and Puget Sound region. Registration available online or by calling 360-854-2599.
In January of 2010, The Monterey Bay Aquarium downgraded Alaska pollock from a “best” choice to a “good” choice, citing concerns about bycatch, midwater trawling, and the possible role played by pollock in the preservation of endangered species. The Marine Stewardship council continues to move forward in certifiying the fishery as sustainable.
The first salmon I ever caught encapsulates my entire young experience with seafood. I loved being out on the choppy water, while my green-tinted family huddled miserably below. I, a chatty eight-year-old, was pestering other non-queasy folks on the boat with questions, when my neighbor hollered, “fish on!” It was my line. I managed to reel it in (a 17-pound Chinook), the competent guys running the boat got it netted, and that was it. So easy it wasn’t much more thrilling than turning on a faucet and having water pour out. In my mind, the ocean was full of fish, and it didn’t take much talent to land one.
And, until the last few generations, that was precisely the case. Atlantic sturgeon were so populous in the early 1800s, their caviar was given away free in bars, in place of peanuts. Early explorers of the North Atlantic wrote about cod so thick in the water that people could walk on them. Here in the Pacific, it was salmon. Salmon that William Clark described as existing in “almost inconceivable multitudes” when he and Meriwether Lewis reached the Columbia River in 1805. Salmon of all shapes, and all colors, and all flavors, salmon as reliable as rain. Salmon sustained civilizations, from Alaska down to Northern California.
Now Chinook (also know as king) salmon are in crisis. Their spawning rivers are commonly dammed and polluted; temperature shifts, heavy metals, antibiotics and hormones are wreaking havoc on their environment in ways that are difficult to prioritize. In some cases, the issues are not environmental so much as they are political: This April, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC ) approved a ruling, due to take effect in 2011, that would allow 60,000 Chinook to be caught as bycatch in the Alaska pollock fishery.
“Bycatch” refers to any fish caught when the goal is to catch a different species—in this case, billions of pounds of pollock, which ends up in sushi rolls and fast food sandwiches around the world. While there are some programs working to get bycatch into Alaskan food banks, almost all of it is simply wasted. Bycatch can’t be sold legally.
60,000 fish is lot of fish. It’s twice as high as the bycatch number supported by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Alaska Board of Fisheries. Populations of the fish have plummeted along the west coast. The Chinook fishery was closed in CaliforniaOregon last year, and in April, it was announced they’ll remain closed for 2009. The Yukon River Salmon Forecast, by Alaska Department of Fish and Game, expects the Chinook return to be “below average to poor.” Tribal fishing rights are profoundly affected. The Yup’ik Eskimos of south-central Alaska, have both a cultural and financial dependence on Chinook, but are not expected to have any legal fishery this year. Their commercial fishery was closed in 2008 as well.
Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd, appointed to his office in 2007 by Governor Sarah Palin, sent a letter to the Alaska Board of Fisheries in mid-May. While admitting that up to 40 percent of the Chinook bycatch could be Yukon Chinook, he also wrote that a flexible mix of bycatch options—including business incentives for low bycatch rates—are the best chance of lowering bycatch. The office came out strongly against the strict hard cap (recommended by the Alaska Board of Fisheries), arguing simply that a hard cap could result in having to halt pollock fishing before reaching its maximum allowable haul.
These issues are critical: how to reduce the numbers permitted as bycatch, and how to effectively restore what’s disappearing.
The Problem of Pollock
Pollock is like ocean-sourced corn syrup—when you start looking, you’ll find it in everything. When the industry discusses its total annual pollock catch, they speak in metric tons, or billions of pounds. Its total is about one-third of the entire global annual catch of all fish combined.
Thanks to these stupendous catches, the population of pollock is estimated to be at its lowest levels in almost 30 years; the Marine Fish Conservation Network estimates it at high risk of population collapse. Pollock happens to be what other North Pacific birds, marine mammals and fish like to eat—seals, puffins, the endangered Stellar’s sea lion, and, of course, Chinook. When a fishing fleet finds a school of pollock, it affects an entire aquatic ecosystem.
Currently, Alaska pollock has the approval of two prominent sustainable seafood programs. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) originally certified the fishery in February 2005. The fishery is now in the midst of its required renewal process, which happens every five years. Pollock is also currently rated a “Green Best Choice” by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s (MBA) Seafood Watch program. The MBA is also reevaluating their label.
Marine activist groups are concerned that its high salmon bycatch limits contribute to a non-sustainable fishery. The Alaska Oceans Program, a former supporter of MSC certification efforts, withdrew their support and asked the MSC to no longer certify fisheries in the state. Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit consumer organization, highlights pollock as a controversial fishery, and suggests on its website ( that the MSC label on Alaskan pollock created an enormous demand for it, driven in large part by global corporations. In a letter to the MBA, renowned seafood consultant Jon Rowley wrote, “In my opinion, the NPFMC decision in Anchorage [earlier this year] to allow 60,000 king salmon to be taken as by-catch jeopardizes the integrity of MBA “sustainable,” “Green Best Choice” seafood designations because of the dire consequences to Western Alaska king salmon runs.
To protect salmon, cutting down on pollock is a good first step. The bland, low-oil fish is found in sandwiches at Arby’s, Burger King, Dairy Queen and McDonald’s, and in numerous internationally-available brands of frozen fish sticks and filets. It’s also the primary source of fish used to create imitation crab meat—used in inexpensive sushi rolls around the world. The next time a California roll sounds tasty, take a moment to consider its environmental impact in the North Pacific, and its social cost to Alaska tribes.
Small-Scale Solutions
The broader issues that relate to protecting and improving salmon habitat are complex, but a few simple consumer choices are easily possible to make—and don’t have obvious potential downsides.
One nonprofit program, Salmon Safe, aims to protect the banks and beds of spawning rivers. Its certification process involves strict limitation of chemicals and the planting of native species along the banks, to control erosion and invasive species, and to encourage the return of indigenous species. The organization also certifies university and corporate campuses as salmon safe, by assessing stormwater runoff, irrigation methods and wetland management, in addition to requiring the limitation of pesticides and fertilizers.
Currently, more than 60,000 acres of farmland and 60 wineries are certified in OregonWashington, along with major urban developments like the Nike world headquarters in Beaverton, University of Washington’s Bothell campus, and the Port of Seattle parks from Shilshole to Elliott Bay. This certification may not create an immediate improvement to salmon populations, but the long-term benefits of a healthier river system are hard to argue against. You can support the program by choosing products with the Salmon Safe label; along with retail shops, you’ll find the wines on many restaurant lists.
Keta salmon is a thriving salmon species with a shorter lifecycle than Chinook, so its population is quicker to recover from an occasional bad year. Formerly known as chum (keta is the actual species name, not a new-for-marketing-purposes name), the keta that spawn in the long, cold Yukon River are loaded with flavorful oils and are fantastic when baked or grilled whole.
Lab tests show the fall Yukon (which begins in July) keta to contain an astonishing amount of Omega 3 oils, in the neighborhood of 5 grams per 100-gram serving. Rowley says, “Most chum have a 2-6% oil content. They’re pale, and not a very good texture. Yukon chums go 13-19% oil, and have a beautiful red-meat color, too. A lot of people would think they’re eating Yukon kings.”Buying Yukon River keta directly supports the Yup’ik people, who have been drastically affected by their non-existent Chinook season. You can find Yukon keta regularly at Metropolitan Market and Whole Foods.
When fisheries are reduced—or closed—independent fishing boat operators are caught in a situation like a farmer is during a cold, wet, summer. Like the Yup’ik, Puget Sound’s small-scale fishing boats rely on a moderate, steady population of fish. Buying fish right off the boat gives consumers the opportunity to ask direct questions about fishing methods, leading to a stronger emphasis on sustainable practices. At farmer’s markets, you can find canned salmon processed and labeled by individual fishing vessels, along with frozen filets, whole fish and smoked salmon.
Even if buying right off the boat is impractical, shortening the supply lines from fishing boat to fork has a positive economic impact. Fishmongers like Wild Salmon Seafood or Mutual Fish know where their fish is coming from and how the season’s going for everyone. At grocery chains, take the time to ask questions about the source of their fish.
The chances of anyone ever again witnessing Clark’s “almost inconceivable multitudes” of salmon are slim. But with consumer-driven effort to support sustainable salmon fishing and reduce its acceptance as bycatch, we should at least be able to promise that future generations of chatty eight-year-olds around Puget Sound can catch one on a choppy spring morning—even if the future generations are, like my family, prone to seasickness.
Jill Lightner is the editor of Edible Seattle, where this story originally appeared. She belatedly apologizes for so relentlessly taunting her seasick brother.
Art by

Leave a Comment