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My Search for the World’s Best Salmon

In light of the very real concerns about the farming methods used to raise most of the “Atlantic Salmon” you find in the grocery stores (and on restaurant menus), how can consumers find salmon they can trust?

I did a little research to come up with some answers.

Why I Avoid Farmed Salmon

For starters, this video:

Yes, we all know that the omega 3 fatty acids (see our post on choosing a good brand of fish oil) that are so abundant in salmon are thought to be beneficial for health, and there is robust data to support this proposition. However, not all salmon is created equal. Many believe farmed salmon is healthier than industrially raised meats, but do a little digging and you find that assumption lives on some very thin ice. In reality, the farmed salmon picture is growing increasingly bleak as Mother Nature puts more and more pressure on these artificial fisheries.

Mother Nature made salmon to roam, they are migratory fish. Nevertheless, farmed salmon are kept in small watery cages. Disease spreads in such environments, and to control the inevitable outbreak of disease, fisherman use pesticides and antibiotics, liberally. These products in turn make their way into the flesh and fats in the fish, and ultimately into our bodies when we eat them.1 And issues with farmed salmon don’t stop at invisible “toxins.” Norwegian and Chilean salmon fisheries are plagued by sea lice. It’s as gross as it sounds.

Then, there’s the color of the fish itself.

Farmed salmon is the equivalent of the hot house tomato. The real, in season, naturally grown tomatoes, that we all drool over, come for only a few months a year and arrive with a flavor that is almost transcendent. We fight siblings for an extra slice of those tomatoes, but the hot house tomato is another story. These tomatoes may look like tomatoes, but they taste more like a sort of tomato mush. You know the ones I’m talking about. The skin peels off unnaturally like a piece of wet scotch tape, you tolerate them on your burger, but know deep down they could be better, and they almost inspire a sort of low level guilt when they land in your grocery cart because you know they’re wildly overpriced. Same is true of farmed salmon. All it takes is a look at that sickly pale color to see you’re eating a species of fish that is not proud of how it looks naked.

Nerd side note: wild salmon have a deep rich orange color because of their diet of plankton and marine microorganisms. These foods build levels of an important antioxidant called astaxanthin in the fish flesh. Unhealthy farmed salmon get their color from dyes added to food as they lack access to their natural food sources.2

Even taking into account all the artificial ways they get farmed salmon to a shade of “focus group pink” acceptable to tired after work shoppers, the still sickly color of my local farmed salmon had me buying quite a bit of previously frozen sockeye from Whole Foods. It wasn’t ideal, but I was begrudgingly cool with the previously frozen label as long as I was eating a more natural form of salmon. However, the cuts I saw in the seafood case at Whole Foods looked, I don’t know, a bit droopy. The color still wasn’t where I wanted it and the fish quality appeared to vary considerably from filet to filet. At around $13.00 per pound, the Whole Foods sockeye wasn’t cheap, and I wouldn’t say it was delicious either. I usually sauté salmon in a cast iron skillet and then move to the oven to finish for just a few minutes. The Whole Foods sockeye was so dry that the little beads of fat you get when you bake salmon (especially farmed salmon) were almost nonexistent. I don’t expect near as much fat content in a wild salmon as with farmed fish, but I was still holding out for wild fish that retained more of its moisture. The Whole Foods distribution machine seemed to bruise its salmon in transit, and I wanted something that tasted fresher, so I went on a mission to cut out the middle man.

I know super nerds like Dave Asprey at BulletProof go on fishing excursions in Alaska to get their salmon, freeze and then use that fish all year (and post every minute of it on Instagram). I wasn’t quite ready for an Alaskan voyage myself (and I’m not on Instagram) so I turned to the Google to explore options.

The U.S. Produces Great Salmon

The first thing I was surprised to learn is that the US produces some of the world’s best salmon, but exports most of it to Asia. Why? Americans are squeamish about heads, tails and bones. We like our animal products sanitized so we lose all  association with a formerly living breathing organism. As such, lots of American salmon is sent to Asian countries (that don’t give a rip about bones and tails), or off to processing plants that clean the fish for us. Used to be that this processed fish was refrozen and sent back to us, but with the rising wealth of the East, a lot of the salmon we used to ship just for processing just stays overseas, never to return.

This leaves us with the crappy, farmed salmon from Norway, Chile and Chinese processing facilities. The sound of “Norwegian salmon” sounds ideal to most of us in America. We picture Norway as this pristine, untouched frontier land with clean air and ancient forests, and that may be somewhat true, but as we learned above, it’s not the case with salmon. As they’d say in California, farmed Norwegian salmon is narly folks. Salmon are raised in relatively tiny sea pens, fed grain and are heavily dosed with antibiotics to prevent the spread of disease. American salmon from the Pacific Northwest and Alaska is far better quality, healthier and comes from better waters. However, a New Deal era dam killed off the migration patterns for most of the Pacific Northwest salmon, leaving us Alaska as our only native source of salmon.3 The good new is that Alaska is a damn good source of salmon.

Bristol Bay is Your Place for Salmon

And as I read more about where the best US salmon comes from, Bristol Bay Alaska kept coming up again and again. Turns out Bristol Bay is fed by multiple relatively pristine river systems that are home to a number of wild salmon species. The region has been called the “crown jewel” of the American commercial fishing industry, and at least historically, the eco system is sustainable. Even accounting for the 61 million salmon it pulls from the region each year, the fishing industry in Bristol Bay doesn’t decimate the salmon population, they still make their way from the ocean to the rivers and streams where they were born to spawn and reproduce with enough fervor to keep the whole machine churning.4

It’s an incredible system for both the natives, who benefit from the 480 million in annual revenue, as well as the fish population, which has been protected to a degree from environmental encroachment. Unfortunately, Trump administration roll backs of previous EPA protections, could pave the way for a massive gold and copper mine in Bristol Bay that many believe would ruin one of America’s last great natural fisheries. The decision as to whether protections will be rescinded is pending before the EPA.5

The EPA published a massive document analyzing the state of the Bristol Bay fishing industry, complete with an estimation of the environmental impact of the proposed mine. I’ve dropped in some of the highlights below:

  • The Bristol Bay watershed supports large carnivore species which rely on salmon, such as brown bears and wolves.
  • All five species of Pacific salmon: sockeye, Chinook, coho, chum and pink, are living in Bristol Bay as are 29 other native fish species.
  • Of the 31 native Alaskan villages in the region, an estimated 25 depend on the salmon industry for their economic survival. Bristol Bay salmon is to Alaska what the car industry is to Detroit.

At the end of the day, I picked a company called the Pride of Bristol Bay for my order. I reached out to them direct for an informal interview and published the results from Steve, the owner of the operation, below. Can’t say the answers were all that insightful, but there are some nuggets here, especially as it pertains to water quality in Bristol Bay. Essentially, the waters, which are free of industry and always have been, are pristine, but that all changes once that copper mine goes in…

Interviewing a Bristol Bay Salmon Operation

Which specific river systems do you source salmon from in Bristol Bay?

We have fished all five river districts systems over the years, it really just depends on which one looks to be the most productive in any given year.  Last year it was the Nushagak and the Naknek/Kivchak systems, and the year before that was Egigik River. All five rivers provide the same amazing salmon!!

What information do you have about Bristol Bay water purity?

This is a great question and my answer is “none.”  I have never heard anyone ask this question, but here are my thoughts:  The five major river systems that feed Bristol Bay are Naknek, Kvichak, Nushagak, Egegik, and Ugashik.  On each of the rivers, there are one or two towns(villages) established with populations ranging from 30 year-round residents to 2500  in the City of Dillingham.  There are no real polluters as there are no factories or farming going on.  The only local income is based around fishing and fish processing, for the most part.  And, at this point, there is no mining allowed in the region.
The salmon spend only days in the section of the river that is close to civilization, as they are born in the small streams and lakes upstream in the pristine Alaska wilderness.  They spend one to two years in the headwater until they are ready to make the journey to the ocean. Once in the ocean, they swim the Bering Sea and the North Pacific for another one to three years before deciding to return to the river of their birth, spawn, and die.
From my perspective, this is what makes wild salmon such a clean food source.
  1. They are grown in some of the most pristine rivers in the world because there is no real human activity.
  2. Salmon are a short-lived species and don’t have heavy metals in their flesh, not having time to build up the heavy metals that other fish have.

How long have you been in operation and how many local employees do you have on your team?

My wife Jenn and I started commercial fishing in the summer of 2002 and we started to bring salmon back to Pennsylvania in 2004 to sell to our friends and family. 2019 marks our 15th year in operation.  On the sales team in PA we have 12 local employees and on the boat, in Alaska, we have 4 employees that hail from the lower 48 as they are mainly college students working a summer job.  At the processing plant in Alaska, they mainly use college students as well being that the season is only 7-8 weeks long.  As for the Alaskan natives they typically fish for themselves or their families.

How much of a threat to native salmon species do farmed species pose? Do they escape pacific farms and invade the Bristol Bay ecosystem?

In my 17 years of fishing, I have never seen a farm-raised Atlantic salmon come up in a net.  Geographically, the closest commercial fish farms are along the coast of central British Columbia.  Any farm-raised salmon that escape would have to swim across the Gulf of Alaska and around the Aleutian Peninsula, then back east to Bristol Bay.  This seems like a slim chance that they would make the journey.  With that said, I do believe that fish farms play a serious role in harming wild salmon stocks in Washington state and British Columbia due to the escaped salmon, sea lice, and the pollution put off by the farms.

What specific features do you look for in a high-quality salmon?

For the most part, all wild salmon are created equal, the quality of salmon is effected in 3 places along the harvest to table journey.  At the time of harvest, during the processing stage, and at the retail store level.
At Pride of Bristol Bay, we control all three.  At the time of harvest, we handle the fish with care to keep them from bruising, quickly break a gill to let blood out of the fish which improve quality of the fish in the freezer, and then place them in 33-degree refrigerated seawater.  Once at the processor they fillet and freeze the fish very quickly.   Then we keep them frozen, locking in the just off the boat freshness until you thaw the salmon to prepare for a meal.  At the retail level, there can be issues with time and temperature as product is held in the freezer. Additionally, there are concerns when frozen fillets are thawed and placed in the fresh case for days and sold as “fresh salmon.”

My Freezer Full of Salmon

After doing the research, I was shocked to learn that the dollars I spent on salmon have far more profound real world implications than I could have ever imagined.

On the one hand, I can buy farmed fish which not only creates an increasingly toxic brand of salmon, it also produces mutant species that threaten the continued existence of our beautiful quality native salmon. Option two, which is the option I ultimately chose, supports a local fishing industry which has achieved sustainability and which is also crucial to the survival of both native Alaskan villages as well as to native Alaskan wildlife. As consumers, we have the option of buying this salmon without making the trek to Alaska and we can make our purchases without Whole Foods / Amazon as an intermediary.

After shopping around, I bought about 6 months worth of salmon (about 350 4-5 oz. filets pre cut into portions and wrapped in plastic) from the Pride of Bristol Bay.

My salmon arrived ice cold and frozen solid about 2 days after I ordered. Here is what the box looked like on my counter top:

When I picked ups the box, my doorman said he was worried the fish wouldn’t keep long in the lobby, but little did we know it would have lasted days without me doing a thing. Upon opening the packaging, I could see that its was expertly freeze dried with an aluminum vacuum seal.

Last, here is what my freezer looks like loaded to the gils with wild salmon. When I want a salmon filet for dinner, I simply drop one of the plastic bags in some cool water and wait for about an hour for it to thaw. The quality of fish I have access to with this direct to consumer bulk purchase is far more delicious than any cut I ever took home from Whole Foods and I feel good knowing my money is going direct to local operations.

Last, you can see here a picture of a salmon filet in my sauté pan, which is a Lodge Cast Iron Skillet. Color and moisture both quite strong.

The Pride of Bristol Bay has offered to provide Gene Food readers $25 off of the 20lb case from their website using coupon code GF25OFF at checkout – give it a shot, and let us know what you think in the comments.

Key Takeaways

Although no fish can be considered pristine in today’s toxic world, we do know that wild salmon is pound for pound healthier and less toxic than farmed salmon, especially salmon farmed in Europe.1

The interesting part, at least for me, is that our seafood dollars can either go towards supporting an unsustainable fish farming industry, or towards a rare animal agriculture model that is actually sustainable, and which supports its local community in meaningful ways.

When we can eat better quality fish that also helps the environment (and it’s the salmon industry in Bristol Bay that is a primary obstacle to the proposed copper mine in the region) it’s a win win for all involved.

John O'Connor

John O'Connor is the founder of Gene Food, host of the Gene Food Podcast and a health coach trained at Duke's Integrative Medicine Program. Read his full bio here.

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