Monday, May 14, 2007

Is your Copper River salmon really wild? (the odds)

If you love to eat salmon, the first fresh fish of the year is truly welcome. But the prices are outrageous, $35 per pound at the market or $65 per plate in a restaurant. Would you pay that much for a salmon spawned in a fish farm and later released to be a so-called "wild" salmon?

If you buy Copper River salmon, you might have paid fancy prices for a farm-bred fish. After all the negative press around fish farms, spending that much for a farm-bred fish is a depressing thought. Today, when the first wild salmon of the year is flown into Seattle, blogfish brings you the odds.

The proportion of hatchery fish in the "wild" salmon catch is not widely publicized. Hatchery breeding doesn't really fit with the glorious stories of why Copper River wild fish are truly the best. The promotions usually run something like: "spawned in a cold mountain river, after swimming many miles upstream." So it's hard to get exact numbers on hatchery supplementation of wild salmon production. Here's what I could find.

Overall, the Copper River catch is 24% hatchery origin. This is mostly sockeye, and the sockeye are 25% hatchery origin. So far as I can find, there are no hatchery chinook (king) salmon in the Copper River catch, so it looks like Copper River kings are all wild fish, except for possibly a small number of strays.

So if you want to stay away from farm-spawned fish in your fancy Copper River "wild" salmon purchases, go for the more expensive kings. If you go for sockeye, you have a 1 in 4 chance of getting a hatchery fish.

It's an open question, whether hatchery fish are really inferior as seafood. Even hatchery salmon put on most of their growth after release, so it might not matter a lot. But the hype around "wild" salmon sure doesn't tell the truth about hatchery salmon, and I really think people ought to know what they're buying. They can decide for themselves if they want to pay fancy "wild" prices for a farm-bred hatchery fish.

Image: spawning "wild" salmon at a hatchery. Note orange eggs flowing out chute at bottom.

11 comments:

Jack Salmon said...

How Wild is "Really Wild"?

Can even non-hatchery salmon in Alaska and the Pacific NW be considered "Really Wild"? Based on long-term records, Ricker (1981)found that (1) all five salmon species showed decreases in size and age over the time span of the fishery; (2) coho and pink salmon exhibited the greatest changes in size and age; (3) these changes were almost certainly due to the cumulative genetic impacts casused by commercial fisheries removing fish of larger than average size; and (4) for sockeye and possibly other species, selection increased both the percentage of young, lightly taken "jack" salmon (precocious male salmon that return a year or more earlier to spawn at a smaller size)and the size difference between jacks and "hooknose" males (larger males that spend additional time in the ocean and return to spawn at a larger size).

Why is this significant? It demonstrates empirically that fishing pressure can alter the genetics of wild salmon populations. This becomes more significant when coupled with findings from a seperate set of studies (Gross 1985,1988,1991)focused on coho salmon reproductive behaviour, alternative life history strategies, and intra specific competition that demonstrate how such changes can impact the long- and short-term evolutionary traits and success of salmon species.

Documented fishing-induced genetic impacts to salmon include increasing the percentage of smaller jack males spawning, greatly decreasing the average size of spawning males (and females) overall, and decreasing the average size of salmon caught in most fisheries. Research (Gross) suggests that in some cases male salmon populations once characterized by large, aggressive, fighting, hooknose males may be transformed into ones dominated by much smaller, precocious jacks. A variety of other scenarios are also probable and it is even possible that in the future ocean caught salmon will consist solely of female females.

So then, I wonder, are even non-hatchery salmon with their altered genetics and their changing life-history characteristics "really wild"? Certainly more so than those spawned in a bucket, but "really wild", I don't know. However, I do know that it is worth thinking about?

Mark Powell said...

Livestock-like wild salmon in Alaska because of fishing? It's certainly true that fishing changes fish populations, and what is a "wild" salmon is a deep question when looked at from this perspective.

I think you're right, there are few truly "wild" salmon left anywhere. And, sadly, we know not what we have lost. Thanks much for the food for thought.

Anonymous said...

Wow! You really did not do your homework before deciding to publish and article on Copper River salmon. I wonder what your motivation was. There actually is a small hatchery up in Gulkana that releases salmon into the Copper River. It is a later run salmon and does not account for more than three (3%) percent of the catch. I presume you were misqualifying Prince William Sound sockeye salmon in your false report. Contrary to popular misgivings, the Copper River is not in Prince William Sound. It is in the Gulf Coast of Alaska, east of Prince William Sound. Some time ago, a lazy journalist located the Copper River in Prince William Sound and the falsehood has just snowballed. Please get your facts right before standing on a soapbox. Furthermore, your photo is of a hatchery crew processing pink salmon. I am guessing from a hatchery in Prince William Sound. Why would you post a misleading photo? They have quite the successful hatchery system in Prince William Sound. Hatchery fish are not farmed fish. Please do your homework on this topic as well. Once you do, and you realize how miniscule the fry are when they are released into the ocean, you will know how ridiculous your article is. You obviously did not research your topic. You get an F.

Mark Powell said...

Anonymous, read the linked reference, slide 14. Commercial hatchery catch averaged 306,000 and wild catch averaged 938,000 over the period 1998-2004. As for the size of hatchery fish, tiny fish spawned in a hatchery are still putting the lie to the wild fish rhetoric of fish spawned in a cold mountain river. The picture is a fish hatchery, to show what one looks like. Not exactly fish spawning in a river, is it?

Anonymous said...

Mark Powell, like I said, do your homework before writing an article. A hatchery in Prince William Sound does not produce Copper River fish. The Copper River is not located in Prince William Sound. When you are quoting hatchery report numbers, you are quoting numbers from Prince William Sound. They might as well be from Belgium. THEY ARE NOT RELATED! Research the segmented Alaska Fish & Game numbers. And therein lies the falsehood behind your bogus report. If you worked as hard at researching your article as you did defending your fictitious article, we would not be having this discussion.

Mark Powell said...

The linked reference is all about Copper River fish, not Prince William Sound. Read the title: "Copper River Wild/Hatchery
stock Identification, CWT
through strontium chloride" and see the map on slide 8. Why do you think refers to Prince William Sound fish?

Anonymous said...

Well Alaska, looks like the consumer is starting to catch on to your hatchery released/semi-wild salmon marketing game.

I personally am sick and tired of hearing about how Alaska has so much 'wild' salmon when I know that over 25% or hatchery raised, pellet fed, net pen reared (need I go on?)

Not that there's anything wrong with that...

But, the days of jealous diatribes about farmed salmon are coming to an end. Just say it, "Yes, we farm salmon". It'll be very therapeutic.

You're just lucky that the author didn't expose the fact that the Copper River salmon have been found to contain the highest levels of PCB's of all salmon in the Pacific Ocean (Ewald et al). For $35 per pound, I guess Seattlers must love their PCB's?

Anonymous said...

I'm not really sure what to take away from your article. I don't particularly care if my salmon began their lives in a hatchery as long as they've spent most of their time in the wild. And the only reason I care about wild vs. farm-raised is because of PCB levels. Farm-bred? Does that matter? Does it have any impact on PCB levels? You don't really say. We all know salmon is expensive. But is Copper River salmon safe to eat? That's still the question, apparently...

Brett R said...

I don't know much about this hatchery vs. wild stuff, but I would like to know the hype around Copper River Salmon is tre. I have a friend who claims there is no difference between Copper River Salmon and others. He claims it's all just a merketing ploy to overcharge for the Copper River Salmon. What do you think?

Mark Powell said...

Check out an earlier blogfish post, Are Copper River Salmon Really Better? The bottom line answer--not really http://blogfishx.blogspot.com/2006/05/are-copper-river-salmon-really-better.html

Mark Powell said...

Check out an earlier blogfish post, Are Copper River Salmon Really Better? The bottom line answer--not really http://blogfishx.blogspot.com/2006/05/are-copper-river-salmon-really-better.html
...I know a Brett R from my Umpqua days...is this the same person?