Thursday, May 15, 2014

Is your Copper River salmon really wild?

It's Copper River salmon time again, and everyone here in Seattle is looking forward to some lovely fresh salmon.  I'll be waiting a couple of weeks until prices come down, the first shipments tend to be expensive.

Is Copper River salmon worth the high price?  There are a lot of good salmon out there, and I think Copper River fish are great, but so are a lot of other fish that don't have the same hype or high prices.

Another interesting issue is the wild origins of Copper River salmon.  Alaska's industry fiercely protects the image of Alaska's salmon, saying they're all wild all the time.  Nevertheless, somewhere around 20% of Copper River sockeye were not spawned naturally, in a lake or stream.  That's right, around 20% of Copper River salmon were spawned by people in a fish hatchery.  The pre-season forecast  for 2014 from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game predicts that 18% of this year's Copper River sockeye will be from hatcheries.  Also, documents from an ecolabel review show that in 2010, the last year reported, 26% of Copper River sockeye were from hatcheries (page 37 of linked document).

"wild" fish spawning?
Is there anything wrong with Alaska's hatchery fish?  They're good to eat, but they can cause problems, especially when they interbreed with wild fish.  Alaskans say their hatchery fish are well managed, but the independent Marine Stewardship Council review found insufficient information to reliably support that claim.  The MSC is requiring better information to establish that hatchery fish aren't harming wild fish within 4 years as a condition of keeping the ecolabel (see page 11).  By the way, this is an issue that contributed to the split between the Alaska seafood industry and the Marine Stewardship Council.
"wild" fish spawning?

The debate around wild or not is really a question of definition.  Alaskans are proud of their salmon "ranching" system, which is what they call the hatchery system.  So long as the fish are caught out of the ocean or a river, they're defined as "wild."  The Alaska Sea Grant says that Alaska's salmon ranching is part of Alaska's aquaculture industry.  And the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation produces "hatchery-born wild salmon" from their salmon ranching operations.  Sounds like a bit of a word tangle to me.  The reason for all of this linguistic muddle, of course, is to help Alaska salmon compete with farmed salmon raised in net pens until they're eating size.

Decide for yourself.  Is a fish spawned by people like in these pictures a "wild" fish? 

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