Looking over the menu at a local restaurant, you spy a delicious salmon dish.
But the thought may occur to you that salmon isn't in season this time of year.
If it's not in season, is it frozen salmon? Surely not at a fine restaurant.
More likely, the salmon came from a fish farm.
For some consumers this realization may cause them to go with the grilled chicken. Environmental and taste concerns have turned many people off farmed fish, but its affordable cost and the health benefits of eating fish have steadily increased the market for aquaculture.
Fish farming has been practiced for centuries on other continents, but didn't become popular in the United States until about 1960 as a way to sustain fish stocks.
Since that time, environmentalists, fishermen and consumers have relied on fish farms to keep wild populations healthy.
Salmon is an exception.
Aquaculturists say salmon is as sustainable as any other fish, yet it remains one of the least accepted farm-raised fish. Environmentalists argue the practice requires overfishing of other species like herring and anchovies.
"The number of fish used to feed pen-raised salmon is more than the number of fish created through the breeding process," said George Leonard, science manager of Seafood Watch, a Monterey Bay Aquarium program that recommends which seafoods to buy or avoid based on sustainability studies.
Instead, Leonard recommends farmed tilapia or catfish because they don't eat other fish and therefore don't require fish to be killed for their food, as is the case with salmon.
Critics of farmed salmon say most farms breed Atlantic salmon and if those fish escape, they will compete with native Chinook, coho and sockeye populations for food and spawning habitat.
Is it farmed or wild?It can be difficult for consumers to tell the difference between farm-raised and wild salmon because the filets look nearly identical. Instead, check the package for some basic information about the fish and where it was caught.
Country of origin: If the salmon came from anywhere other than the United States it is likely farm-raised. Farmed fish often comes from Australia, Chile, Norway and South Africa.
Species: Wild salmon are local salmon. If the label reads Alaskan, Chinook, coho or sockeye then it's likely wild salmon. If it reads Atlantic salmon, it likely came from a farm.
Season: The Northern California salmon season runs from late spring to early fall. Unless it is frozen, salmon purchased in December is likely farm-raised.
Price: Wild salmon costs, on average, $5 more per pound than farm-raised.
Color: There is no way to tell if a fish is wild or farmed by its color. Some farms add artificial colorants to the fish food to simulate the natural coloring the fish get from eating shrimp and krill.
Source: Seafood Watch.
Conversely, fish farmers say penned salmon are needed to keep up with consumption.
"The demand for salmon is so strong it would be impossible to supply it with only wild fish," said John Bielka, general manager of American Gold Seafood, a Washington state aquaculture company and the only U.S. salmon farming operation on the West Coast. "By raising penned salmon we're helping keep wild salmon stocks strong."
American Gold Seafood breeds salmon in hatcheries, then moves the young salmon to one of 120 pens off the coast. Each pen is made with nets, meant to keep the fish in and predators out, and is equipped with a rotating feeder that releases pellets of anchovy, corn, herring, soybeans and wheat for the growing salmon.
Escapes happen when the fish discover an opening between the top net and one of the side nets or a hole in one of the nets. Because the pens are in the ocean rather than in manmade ponds or raceways further inland, Bielka said the escapees become a part of the ocean habitat.
While environmental issues are a concern for some consumers, an increasing demand for the seasonal fish requires supermarkets and restaurants to look for a year-round solution. That often means farm-raised, affordable fish or a hefty price tag for wild fish.
Stephen Putnam, executive chef for Wine and Roses, said the key to choosing farmed salmon is to know who the growers are and learn how the fish are being grown.
Putnam said he prefers wild salmon because it has a stronger flavor and more appealing texture. But during late winter, when fresh, wild salmon is unavailable, he uses farmed salmon from suppliers he trusts.
He said he tries to stay away from farms with poor environmental practices and those that use additives, hormones and antibiotics to rear the fish. He said the use of antibiotics is a sign the fish have been raised in close quarters and likely means they don't have enough room to exercise, meaning more fat and less flavor.
"There are quality farmed salmon out there," Putnam said. "It really depends on the farms and what methods are used to raise the salmon. Choosing between farmed and wild salmon can be like choosing between penned or free-range cattle."
Make it at homeIf reading about all of this salmon has left you craving some fresh grilled fish, then try this recipe from Stephen Putnam, executive chef of Wine and Roses:
Grilled Salmon with roasted beets, couscous, and warm roasted shallot vinaigrette
4 7 oz portions of wild salmon
1 lb. beets red or yellow or both
1 box Far East Couscous
4 peeled shallots
2 tbsp. Sherry vinegar
4 tbsp. Walnut oil
1 tbsp. Vegetable oil
Hazelnut portion of butter
1 bunch Arugula
1 cup kosher salt
Preheat oven to 400F. Place all but one teaspoon salt in an ovenproof casserole dish and place your beets unpeeled on top of the salt. Place a cover over top and roast in oven until tender, about one hour. Peel and slice beets.
Prepare couscous using directions on outside of box.
To grill: Heat grill until fairly hot, but don't put too high because heat can ruin the dish. Rub fish with vegetable oil and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with fresh thyme. Place fish on grill and cook to desired temperature.
Roasted shallot vinaigrette:
Place shallots in a roasting pan. Roast in oven until golden brown. Place in food processor and puree. Place in a bowl. Add sherry vinegar and hazelnut oil. Season with salt and pepper
Toss couscous in a bowl with enough of the vinaigrette to coat; place in center of plate. In a hot sauté pan place sliced beets and heat thru, place in a bowl, toss with a little vinaigrette and place in the center of your plate on top of the couscous. Place salmon in center of plate. Toss the arugula with a little hazelnut oil and salt, set along side of your salmon. Enjoy!
Similarly, Whole Foods Markets, which prides itself on purchasing natural and organic foods, seeks out fish farmers who raise their fish "naturally," meaning fish are given a more natural diet of fish-based feed with no chemicals or hormones added.
Adam Smith, the Whole Foods Market seafood coordinator for Northern California, said naturally fed farmed salmon are the best choice if farm-raised is the only option because they contain similar amounts of omega-3 fatty acids as natural salmon.
Until recently the grocer had been purchasing its farm-raised fish from Chile and Norway, two of the largest producers of penned salmon. But last month they found Bielka's company and decided to begin carrying its products, which Whole Foods feels meet the needs of its environmentally and nutritionally conscious consumers.
Smith said the company's goal in finding and using environmentally friendly farms is to encourage other farms to follow suit. In choosing farms, the company researches how much waste is created and dumped into the ocean through the process. They also look at the number of escaped salmon and the type of food used.
"Aquaculture is a hot issue right now because there are salmon farming practices worldwide that damage the oceans," Smith said. "We seek out farmers who push the envelope to do the right thing when it comes to the environment."
For consumers still not sold on farm-raised, Smith said Whole Foods Markets also offers wild salmon during the winter months by freezing it in season then thawing it for sale.
Smith said it can be difficult to tell the difference between farm-raised and wild salmon just by looking at them. He said one of the best indicators for consumers is the price: Farm-raised salmon in general costs about $5 less per pound than wild salmon.
But he said the best way to tell the difference is to talk to the fishmonger and ask a lot of questions.
First published: Wednesday, December 6, 2006