Species Spotlight On Atlantic Salmon

Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) are a robust, strong swimming fish that once ranged across the North Atlantic coastal regions. They are the second largest of the salmon species, averaging over 10 pounds or larger in the wild. Once they hatch, salmon eventually make it to the ocean, where they spend at least one year feeding on shrimp and amphipods before returning upstream to spawn. Atlantic salmon often survive and return to the ocean unlike the Pacific salmon species.

Early American colonists were pleased to find the familiar Atlantic salmon in nearly every river and stream during their annual run. The arrival of Scandinavian immigrants to America brought traditional brined or cured salmon products like gravlax, which was originally made by burying the fish in sand. The Scots also brought their own version of salted and smoked salmon to the US and Canadian Maritimes. Jewish immigrants, mostly from Germany gave us that iconic New York City staple of lox on a bagel with a smear of cream cheese.

Many of the spawning grounds for Atlantic salmon were eliminated through dams or pollution. This had dire effects on the fish population by the 20th century. Today, wild Atlantic salmon are a protected species in American waters, with similar protections in other nations. There are efforts underway to rebuild the wild population. Efforts are underway to help wild fish reach spawning grounds by creating fish ladders at dams and cleaning polluted rivers and streams.

Salmon Aquaculture

salmon farm

Americans eat on average over 3lbs. of salmon annually and Australians eat more than twice that much. The majority of this salmon is farmed Atlantic fish, which has made salmon more available than ever. Salmon is no longer a regional delicacy or a canned staple, thanks to intensive aquaculture practices, salmon is worldwide. Intensive farming of Atlantic salmon began in the 1960’s with the creation of large sea cages to raise the fish. Atlantic salmon are also raised inland in recirculating aquaculture systems in the United States.

Atlantic salmon is mainly produced in Australia, Canada, Chile, Norway, Russia, the UK and the US, making it widely available both fresh and frozen. Domestic salmon farms in the US are mainly concentrated in Maine and Washington. The quality of these fish is heavily dependent upon the conditions they are raised.

The demand for salmon has led to questionable practices such as overcrowding, the use of antibiotics, artificial additives in the fish feed and polluting the surrounding ecosystem. These issues, along with massive fish “die-offs” tend to make headlines in the mass media. Salmon are not a schooling fish, they only group together during spawning season and are not built to withstand repeated contact with other fish. This leads to sickness, infections, and parasites, which the worst salmon farms treat with antibiotics.

Raising these fish outside their native range can also cause controversy when farmed salmon eventually escape. Ironically, the endangered Atlantic salmon has become an invasive species outside of their native habitat, competing against the indigenous salmon species of the Pacific.

Wester Ross display

Organically raised salmon, especially from farms in Norway/Faroe Island, Ireland and Scotland are producing fish of a much higher quality. The better salmon are in much less crowded conditions, with better waterflow, and are fed an organic diet with contains a high ratio of fish and crustaceans. The latter is a natural source of astaxanthin, which gives salmon its distinctive color. Many of these better farms handle parasites like sea lice with lumpfish, which clean the salmon by eating the parasites.

Buying Atlantic Salmon

Not all farmed Atlantic salmon is raised poorly, but there is a lot of bad salmon on the market. Price is one indicator, but it is more important to learn about the product. The color of Atlantic salmon flesh is not an indicator of quality by itself. The color can range from dark orange to more pinkish tones depending upon the feed used at the fish farm. Aquaculture companies can choose the color they want their salmon.

You will see the term “color added” on a package of farmed salmon since these fish are fed pellets. Some consumers have been misled to believe that the fish are injected with dye, or the meat is colored during processing, but this isn’t true. The better raised salmon with get their color from a natural source in the pellets (krill or shrimp). However, some producers use an artificial source of astaxanthin in their feed to produce this color.

Atlantic farm-raised salmon is a little different than its wild relatives. Overall, it is more mild and much fattier than wild caught Pacific salmon. High grade farmed salmon often has distinctive streaks of fat beyond even the largest wild king salmon. The differences between the two types are growing. Farmed salmon is much more like a domestic pig and wild salmon is closer to a wild boar. Both are delicious and similar, but you will notice the differences.

salmon nigiri

Atlantic salmon meat flakes well but is also firm enough to be served as steaks or fillets. It is hugely popular grilled, broiled, blackened, planked, smoked or cured as lox. The moderately-oily, flavorful flesh is high in Omega-3, but less so than wild-caught salmon, this is also dependent upon what the fish are fed. Salmon fed on vegetarian diets seem to have lower Omega-3 levels than salmon fed from fish meal or fish oil.

For an alternative to Atlantic salmon, try any of the salmon-type fishes like trout or Arctic char. Large, very fresh mackerel would also be a tasty, wild caught alternative and for those looking for a darker and richer flavor, try bluefish. Another farmed fish, with great flavor but without the problems of farmed salmon is barramundi, also known as Asian sea bass.

Historic Recipe for Atlantic Salmon

To Roast a Salmon Whole (1773)

Draw your salmon at the gills, stuff the belly of it with some whole sweet herbs, such as thyme, rosemary, winter savoury, sweet marjoram, a small onion, and garlick, scale the salmon, wipe off the slime, and lard him with pickled herrings, or a salt eel, then season some large oysters with nutmeg, and sew up his belly with them; baste him with butter, lay him upon sticks in a tin dripping pan, set it into the oven; draw it out, turn the other side upwards, then put some claret in the dripping pan under it, with wine, anchovies, pepper, and nutmeg; let the gravy drip into it baste it, out of the pan, with rosemary and bays; when the fish is done enough, take all the fat gravy, boil it up, and beat it with thick butter; then dish your salmon, pour the sauce over it; rip up his belly, take out some of the oysters, put them into the sauce, take away the herbs, and serve it up hot.

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