The Year Without Salmon?

It's the number three most popular seafood in this country, but this year salmon may have to sit this one out. It seems that won't be difficult because there are so few to go around.

According to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, a federal agency under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Commerce, 775,000 adult chinook salmon returned to spawn in the Sacramento River valley in central California in 2002. The minimum number to maintain conservation goals is 122,000 - 180,000. This year, the projected run: a mere 58,000. (Check out this graphic from the Sacramento Bee.)

As a result, the PFMC voted last week to cancel this year's chinook salmon season in federal waters off the coast of California and most of Oregon. On May 1, the vote will be reviewed by NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service and will likely be confirmed.

And yesterday, the California state Fish & Game Commission weighed in with a ban on salmon fishing in coastal waters.

The diminishing returns are affecting other salmon-rich areas further north as well, resulting in harvest quotas that will have a dramatic impact on the price of salmon. In Washington state, the state Fish & Gaming Commission announced that the Columbia river run for coho salmon is expected to total about 196,000 fish, nearly 266,000 fewer than last year. As a result, this year's harvest quota will be just a hair more than 20,000.

Salmon lovers can hold out for the prized Alaskan salmon but that too will be limited by a recently announced harvest quota of 170,000 chinook in southeast Alaska, down by 159,000 fish, making it the leanest catch since 2000. (Clarification, April 18: Despite the declining numbers for southeast Alaskan chinook, the total Alaskan salmon harvest is expected to be substantial this year. According to a press release from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the total harvest of all species statewide is projected to be approximately 137 million salmon, "comprised of an estimated contribution of 672,000 Chinook salmon, 47.1 million sockeye salmon, 4.4 million coho salmon, 66 million pink salmon, and 18.7 million chum salmon.")

In Seattle, there's talk in the restaurant community about switching to farmed salmon, but apparently, the salmon farm industry in British Columbia, which sends 85 percent of its supply to the U.S. , will not be able to meet the demand that is expected resulting from the depleted wild stocks.

Salmon lovers, what's your reaction to these dramatic underwater developments? Will you pay the exorbitant price expected this summer at the seafood counter or will you lay off the pink fish? Will you switch to farmed salmon, which is considered environmentally sketchy, or will you use this as opportunity to explore other types of fish and seafood?

As a cook, I am sad about this news, but as a participant in the food chain, I am devastated about the state of our waters. Sustainably farmed mussels, anyone?

P.S.: As mentioned in yesterday's chat, I'm looking for your tips on stretching the weekly food budget, to be featured in a blog post next week. Shopping and cooking tips are both welcome. Please send your stories to: or with the subject line "Getting Thrifty." Please include your city and state and size of household. My e-mail was on the fritz yesterday, but now it's up and running.

By Kim ODonnel |  April 16, 2008; 10:31 AM ET Seafood , Sustainability
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Just a few weeks ago I saw a documentary about wild salmon. In one state (sorry, forgot which...) the wild salmon did their annual 'run' in a river that was heavily used by salmon farmers to farm salmon. Apparently, this farm salmon is infected by a parasite and the wild salmon, swimming in the river, gets it too. The farmed salmon does not live long enough to be affected (or is so full of antinbiotics that it doesn't matter right!?), but the wild salmon has no defense against the parasite and dies.
I wonder if this is partly what is causing the dip in wild salmon now?
On that note: we can't eat wild salmon because we are fishing it into extinction.
We can't eat farmed salmon, cuz' they seem to harm our ecosystem too? With all the crap in both farmed and wild fish, what are we suppose to eat? Kim, is there such a thing as an 'organic' farmed fish? If not, will somebody please start farming fish this way?

Posted by: Kat | April 16, 2008 11:36 AM

just to clarify, the PMFC is actually made up of private citizens that advise the government...

And remember to keep taking a pass on Chilean Seabass!

Chilean salmon is good...

Posted by: ncc | April 16, 2008 12:02 PM

I'm happy to not eat salmon. Don't care for it, but occasionally make myself eat it because it's healthy.

Lately we've been buying farmed steelhead trout, anyone got any info on that fish?

Posted by: Anonymous | April 16, 2008 12:11 PM

While the Southeast Alaska king salmon quota has indeed been reduced, the state Dept. of Fish and game projects a statewide harvest of 137 million fish. This figure includes 47 million sockeye, 4.4 million coho, and 18 million chum salmon.

King salmon will be very expensive, but the others will be on ice at a fresh fish counter near you.

Posted by: peteroddy | April 16, 2008 12:40 PM

Don't eat farmed salmon - ever.

Posted by: Sally | April 16, 2008 1:11 PM

I am a vegetarian who eats fish. For a while I've been grappling with the hypocrisy of this but have been unwilling to even further limit the variety of foods available to me - on top of not eating meat, I try to eat organic and local produce whenever possible. This news about salmon, and knowing more generally about the increasing crisis of over-fishing, inches me ever closer to finally giving up seafood. But it makes me so sad, as someone who loves to eat, to feel the range of options available to me shrink even further. It's just depressing all around.

Posted by: Amanda | April 16, 2008 1:30 PM

I have almost completely given up seafood, except for ordering in restaurants but only if I know it's in season and where it's from. I am happy to let it go if it means helping to save a species or an eco-system.

First to go were the treasures of the Chesapeake, crabs and oysters, due to over-fishing and the state of the Bay. Then I learned about farmed salmon, and that was the end of that (what stood out in my mind at that time was that the fish was given a dye to turn it's flesh pink because it didn't consume a wild diet which naturally turns it a blood-red color). I am barely able to justify/afford wild, Alaskan salmon once a year when it is in season, but not this year. Probably not for a long time after this season either.

Poor fishies.

Posted by: Centre of Nowhere | April 16, 2008 1:58 PM

Amanda, there are so many options out there for cooking without meat. Have you checked out the vegetarian blogging community? I know Kim did a post on it, and there's some really inspiring food out there. Off the top of my head, and both feature the kind of sustainable vegetarian cooking you're talking about.

Posted by: mollyjade | April 16, 2008 2:23 PM

Personally, I would much rather forgo fish for a year (or several) if it means saving them, and ultimately, the entire ecosystem. I'm still going to eat, and I'm still going to eat out, it will just be something else on my plate. There are plenty of wonderful foods out there :)

Posted by: frommichigan | April 16, 2008 3:23 PM

Well, I only trust the salmon that I buy from Whole Foods because it is MSC certified, meaning that they have partnered with producers who use sustainable fishing practices. In theory that means their fish--even when farm raised--is OK for the environment. I hope that is the case and I'm not just being misled. As for salmon, it's not a fish that I eat regularly though I do love it! I probably eat (in order) tilapia, mahi-mahi, and catfish most weeks (from Giant). I don't make it to WF on any regular basis, but I almost always treat myself to some wild salmon when I go there!

Posted by: Sean | April 16, 2008 3:40 PM

Hi, there Kat! At this time, there is some fish that makes organic claims, but I hesitate to believe them, because the National Organic Program has clearly admitted their rules do not cover fish. And they WILL NOT organically certify wild caught fish, because they have no way of knowing what the fish have been consuming, where they've been swimming, that sort of thing. There are proposed standards for organic fish production being discussed, but right now they are on hold, primarily due to disagreement on net pens and feeding of carnivorous fish. We know net pens cause more problems environmentally then they eliminate (this is the type of pen generally used for farmed salmon, where there is the increased parasites, and the devastating effects on wild populations). They're pretty much in agreement on tank farming (like catfish and other fresh-water species are done), but there is demand for a "whole fish" rule, and they don't want to release a rule that says it covers certain types of aquaculture (fish farming) but not others. So, not sure when we'll have organic fish that is certified to the National Program.

I'm like Sean above. I check to see if fish are MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certified, or eat farmed fish that are local and raised in freshwater tanks. Farmed catfish and trout are actually quite environmentally friendly, and less likely to be contaminated with PCB's, mercury and selenium.

Posted by: Organic Gal | April 16, 2008 4:24 PM

I echo the previous poster - - - do not eat farmed salmon. Ever.

The salmon runs are in danger here in part because of Bush administration policies that favor agricultural water use over the needs of fish.

Salmon is the iconic fish of the Pacific Northwest. The closure of the fisheries affects whole coastal communities.

Posted by: Oregon reader | April 16, 2008 5:22 PM

I've only purchased flash frozen salmon, Alaskan mostly. I'm quite ok with the smaller filets, since I don't need a big hunk of protien. I also purchase flash frozen tilapia.

I so very rarely buy fresh fish because I never completely trust how "fresh" it is.

I've read that those horrible looking snakeheads recently imported from China into the Chessapeake are quite good to eat. Perhaps we should start overfishing those!

Posted by: Silver Spring | April 16, 2008 5:30 PM

You know, I'm baffled about this, and not sure why we're not hearing explanations for the huge drop in population. Maybe it is, as the first poster says, because of a virus, or maybe (just maybe) because the current administration has deregulated the heck out of the salmon fisheries in the Pacific Northwest, greatly diminishing their protections. I'm sorry to have to get political here but, yes, our food supply and environment are both political issues.

Any further insight, Kim?

Posted by: Reine de Saba | April 16, 2008 11:11 PM

Tell me again why I can't eat the farmed Chilean salmon and steel head trout? Okay, they're given color, I accept that. And I know this is incredibly low brow, but have you ever had the "wild-caught Alaskan pink salmon" from a can? It's like $1.67 and there's this almost whole salmon in there. Deal of the century if you ask me.

Posted by: Dave | April 17, 2008 7:30 AM

Hey Dave,
According to a piece in this morning's NYT, Safeway last month stopped buying Chilean-farmed salmon from a supplier called Marine Harvest due to a virus (infectious salmon anemia, or I.S.A. )that is killing millions of farmed fish in Chile. According to the article, Safeway says the virus is impacting appearance and size. As for farmed steelhead trout, I will get back to you.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | April 17, 2008 8:31 AM

This isn't going to be year without salmon, it will be the last year with salmon. It is sad but true that in the west electricity is considered more valuable than this natural product. The Columbia River salmon run was 300 million in the 1930s. If you love salmon, pay the price this year as this will be your last chance for it.

Posted by: anonymous bureaucrat | April 17, 2008 2:53 PM

A huge error about Alaska salmon appears in this article. The numbers you printed for the coming Alaska salmon season are actually for only king salmon (the rarest species) and only for the Southeast Alaska region, the region where king salmon are managed under a US-Canada treaty.
As commenter #4 wrote, the Alaska salmon harvest is expected to be in the tens of millions, again. We have had high salmon harvests in Alaska since the early 1980s, and often the problem of Alaska salmon fisheries is finding enough buyers for the other species of salmon: pinks, chums, sockeye and coho.
Please correct the error in another of your postings. It is damaging to the salmon market upon which Alaska fishermen depend.

Posted by: Judy Brakel | April 18, 2008 12:44 AM

Judy Brakel, thanks for writing. I have added a clarification in the body of my post that gives a wider scope of the salmon projections in all of Alaska. Cheers.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | April 18, 2008 7:47 AM

Thanks for the blog tips, and I will start following the vegetarian edition of What's Cooking, as well. Don't get me wrong, I love tofu and all kinds of beans, and know that there are a variety of ways to prepare them - I was just venting, I guess, and uselessly longing for the bliss of ignorance. Plus, I can't always prioritize spending time on cooking, as much as I do genuinely enjoy it. Food just seems to take so much effort these days. But I know that as with many things, the more I "practice" cooking a wider range of recipes, the more natural it will become. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to respond.

Posted by: Thanks to mollyjade | April 18, 2008 12:40 PM


Posted by: William Snacks | April 18, 2008 1:51 PM

Anyone else remember the Ben Stein ads about Alaskan seafood especially Salmon being a renewable resource? It is funny that nobody seems to understand how valuable streams and rivers that feed into the Pacific are for the vitality of these fish species. Diverting water for agriculture, energy and industry are taking away important bodies of water that these fish need to be able to spawn.
Even here on the east coast this can be a huge problem. I live in the finger lakes region of New York, where many of the great lakes and the finger lakes are home to land locked atlantic Salmon that are suffering similar fates, because they are losing their streams to development and farming.
As an avid fisherman and fish eater I am scared about all of the unsustainable fishing practices that are so common place here in the United States. Relatively speaking, fish farming is the best way to ensure there is enough fish to fill our demand for seafood. As long as as these farms are only farming fish native to their locations the effect of escaping fish on the environment can be minimal. Plus low impact methods for raising these fish have been known for years. It sure beats out industrial cattle and pig farms.
A world without fish is a world I would not want to live in.

Posted by: That Guy | April 18, 2008 3:47 PM

Yeah, damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Posted by: Io | April 19, 2008 11:06 PM

I will pay for the Alaskan wild, and slip gift card to those I know will be having trouble. Trying to eat less tuna leave salmon for me.

Posted by: johnslau | April 20, 2008 1:14 PM

Alaska not as depleted as California/ Oregon,
but at least around Petersburg we've had a series of disappointing years.

How do you sort out all the causative factors?Beats me.

1)I've met fishermen who say the quotas set by the state are just too high.
2)Logging not only causes silting,but can
let in excessive sunlight,heating streams in spawning grounds-but a lot of(most?)
Alaskan Salmon begin life in state hatcheries(and some places, loggers have added protective strips of vegetation along streams)
3)In 2003 we had a great season, but in 2004 catches dropped as hot weather encouraged the salmon to dive for the bottom and stay there.
4)And yes, fish farms release parasites
that infect vulnerable hatchlings-
but not every new salmon runs a gauntlet of
farmed fish.
5)And in Washington there is the eternal
struggle between the East side of the Cascades (loggers,ranchers, apple growers,
and the west side (fisherman and recreationists) for control of water resources and the forest itself.
(ex Okanogan National Forest Volunteer,
current cannery worker.)

Posted by: Slimer | April 28, 2008 1:34 PM

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