Not so wild


A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service depiction of how hatchery salmon are fed in pens before eventually being released to the sea in hope they will one day return to be “wild caught”/USFWS


BOISE, ID – The menu at the Anthony’s Restaurant here promised fresh, “Wild Alaska King Salmon.” I thought about it and passed.

There is no food in the restaurant business more mislabeled than seafood. And the term “fresh” might be the most misused of the labels,  though the odds were better than average that the salmon at Anthony’s was fresh Chinook.

The winter troll season is open in Alaska, and trollers have been delivering 200 to 800 kings per week since the start of the year, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Couple that to the excellent reputation of Anthony’s – a small, Pacific Northwest chain specializing in seafood – and it seemed likely the fish was fresh.

No, that wasn’t the problem.

The issue was with the words “wild” and “Alaska,” which are widely used to market the 49th state troll catch, and the hypocrisy of it both.

Many of the winter-caught troll kings aren’t wild, and most of them aren’t any more Alaskan than the average, trailer-towing snowbird who spends a couple of months on the Kenai Peninsula every summer.

Thankfully, the fraudulent and widespread use of the term “wild” largely ended more than two decades ago after the state of  Oregon financed an advertising and public relations campaign called “Brand Oregon” to promote in-state businesses. The campaign ran into problems in 2004, however, when it prepared what KATU-TV News in Portland described as “a blitz of television and radio ads…touting ‘Oregon wild salmon.’

“Oregon salmon fishermen wanted to use the term ‘wild’ to make their catch more appealing, and more valuable, than salmon raised in pens,” the station reported at the time. “However, fish activists objected, because many of the salmon caught off the Oregon coast are reared in hatcheries.

“Truth in advertising means you can’t be calling hatchery salmon ‘wild’ salmon for marketing purposes,’ said Bill Bakke, director of the Native Fish Society of Oregon. ‘They aren’t wild salmon.'”

Enter the term “wild-caught.”

Alaska’s not-so-wild salmon

Alaska, which banned the net-pen farming of salmon in 1990, was by the year 2004 deep into the business of farming the sea, or “ranching salmon” as the economic interests backing the state’s massive hatchery program like to call it. The hatchery program itself dated back to the 1970s when Alaska voters began approving millions of dollars in bonds to “rehabilitate and enhance depressed stocks and help reduce economic impact in years of low natural stocks,” according to the official Alaska Department of Fish and Game history.

Cold water in the North Pacific had at the time pushed most 49th state’s salmon stocks to low levels of productivity, though kings were still doing well. But the belief within the Fish and Game’s Division of Fisheries Enhancement and Rehabilitation (FRED) was that hatcheries were vital to restore runs of coho, sockeye and chum salmon.

“By the late 1970s, the (hatcheries) had the capacity to incubate over 100 million eggs,” according to the Fish and Game history. “Over the years, the Fisheries Rehabilitation and Enhancement Division built over 20 hatcheries and then, embracing the statehood concept of local control, turned them over to the fishermen.

“‘The plan from the very beginning was that the state was going to develop the hatcheries, and then it was going to be a user-pay thing where the fishermen themselves funded the hatcheries,’ said John Burke, a former FRED Division biologist, and now general manager for the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association. ‘The state would invest in research and developing the technology and once that was stable, turn it over to the fishermen so they paid to enhance their industry.”

Voters who approved the bonds to build the hatcheries were never told this, and there is no “statehood concept of local control” that calls for turning government agencies over to in-state business interests. If there were, goodly parts of Fish and Game would have gone local long ago. Commercial fishermen in Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound would more than happy to relieve the agency of the costly burden of managing fisheries there.

But that is a different story. This one is about the “wild-caught” charade and the poaching of other people’s salmon by Alaska fishermen.

By 2004, when the labeling problem in Oregon popped up, Alaska was one of the biggest salmon farmers on the Pacific Rim – right up there with Japan, which pioneered the commercial hatchery business shortly after the end of World War II left that nation’s ocean fisheries in ruin.

“Seeing the situation, Koichi Seko, the first President of Kindai University, envisioned the sea as a large tank and came up with the notion of ‘fish cultivation in the sea,'” according to a Kindai University “History of aquaculture”.

“This is the origin of fish farming.

“At that time, only commercial fishing was done in the open sea, yet despite the disbelief of most fishermen, Seko strongly advocated fish farming to promote the fisheries and the self-sufficient nation in marine resources.”

The Japanese had been in aquaculture for decades prior to this, but the efforts were unscientific and the results small. Better science began to change that. It took years to perfect aquaculture techniques but by the 1970s, Japan had turned the corner.

“Since 1971…the survival rate and number of released juveniles have increased as a result of efficient technical innovations based on intensive scientific research and thus the annual catches of salmon have increased exponentially to about 49 and 47 million individuals in 1985 and 1986,” Japanese scientists would be reporting by 1989.

By 2004, Alaska ranchers who’d copied the Japanese were starting to see similar success, though it was not fully welcomed in the 49th state.

Crushing Yukon chum

“Natural wild salmon competes with hatchery wild salmon,” Alaska economist Gunnar Knapp, the guru of Alaska salmon marketing would write in a 2007 paper prepared for Traffic, a non-governmental organization focused on the global trade in wild plants and animals. 

“…Some fishermen in regions without hatcheries, such as Interior and Western Alaska, have argued that Alaska salmon hatcheries have depressed prices for Alaska pink and chum salmon by producing too many fish,” Knapp observed then. “Some fishermen argue their markets would be better if hatcheries produced less fish. More generally, any wild salmon fishery’s markets would be better if other wild fisheries produced less fish. High Alaska wild salmon catches –  usually viewed as evidence of successful management of Alaska’s wild salmon fisheries – increase the difficulty of marketing the catch.”

Hatchery chum salmon at about this time decimated the market for wild chums from the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers in Western Alaska, and pink salmon prices fell to never rebound to what they once were despite what Knapp described as federal government efforts to “strengthen prices” by purchasing “substantial volumes of canned pink salmon…under a U.S. Department of Agriculture commodity purchase program,” a practice which continues to this day.

By 2007, too, there had been an even bigger revolution in net-pen farming than in ocean farming of salmon, and the net-pen farmers were in the process of taking over the retail market. They now produce more than 75 percent of the salmon eaten around the globe, and their market share continues to grow.

Fading into the rearview mirror is the brief war that once raged between the people who caught fish with nets in the sea and those who grew them in pens in the sea.

“New federal and state grant programs provided significant funding for a variety of regional and private marketing efforts (for wild salmon),” Knapp wrote in 2007. “Nongovernmental organizations opposed to salmon farming increased efforts to persuade consumers and retailers not to buy farmed salmon. (Meanwhile), the farmed salmon industry expanded efforts to respond to these attacks and to highly publicized research on potential health risks associated with farmed salmon.”

Given all this going on early in the 2000s, about the last thing salmon fishermen and processors in Alaska needed was to get bogged down in a fight over what could legally be advertised as a “wild” salmon and thus they were quick to adopt Oregon’s  “wild-caught” standard for fish caught in those parts of the Alaska where hatcheries are a big business, although there were some exceptions that continue to this day. Copper River sockeye and troll-caught salmon are the biggest among them.

The number of hatchery fish in the Copper River sockeye run is relatively small, but the number of hatchery fish in the troll catch is significant. If you buy one of the latter as a “wild” Alaska salmon this time of year, there is a decent chance it might instead be a hatchery salmon.

According to state Fish and Game data, more than a third of the Chinook caught in the winter troll fishery in 2022 were non-hatchery fish. So far this year, the numbers are showing a little less than a third of the catch is of hatchery origin. So if you order the “wild” salmon, there is about a one in three chance it will be a farmed fish.

The chances it will be from somewhere other than Alaska are far greater.

“Alaska Grown” not

Of the hatchery fish caught in the winter troll fishery last year, approximately 34 percent came from hatcheries in British Columbia, 28 percent from hatcheries in Washington state, 21 percent from Alaska hatcheries, 16 percent from Oregon and less than 1 percent from Idaho.

Or put, another way, 79 percent of those “Alaska” Chinook were actually Chinook from “Outside,” as Alaskans call everywhere but Alaska. And given that the hatchery fish are a good surrogate tracker for wild salmon, the chances that you will actually get an “Alaska” Chinook when you order that “Alaska” fish are about two in 10.

These numbers would be in line with a state study that in 2018 found that Alaska-origin salmon comprised less than 20 percent of the winter troll catch. That genetic sampling concluded “the Canada group was the highest contributor during the regionwide. early-winter troll fishery…(with) 47 percent, followed by the U.S. South, 31 percent; Alaska, 20 percent; and Transboundary, 2 percent, reporting groups.”

There were fewer Alaska fish in the late-winter troll group with the sampling there showing the “Canada group was the highest contributor during this fishery, 66 percent, followed by Alaska, 17 percent, and U.S. South, 16 percent….”

Truth in advertising would make it appear that honest marketing of the fish caught in the late-winter troll fishery be labeled “Canadian Wild Chinook,” given there would be a better than 50-50 chance that is what the consumer is getting, although the truly accurate label would be “Wild-caught Gulf of Alaska salmon.”

This is only a little misleading in that a lot of consumers, and some fish mongers, believe wild-caught fish are wild, and given the lying ways of some restaurants, it might not matter the salmon’s region of origin.

When the environmental group Oceana tested salmon served in restaurants in Chicago and along the Eastern Seaboard in the winter of 2014-15, it reported finding that 67 percent of the fish were mislabeled.

“The most common form of mislabeling was farmed Atlantic salmon being sold as ‘wild salmon.’ There were also six instances in (82 samples in) which supposed high-value Chinook or king salmon were actually farmed Atlantic, and one in which the cheaper chum salmon was sold as king salmon,” the organization reported. “It appears vague names, like “wild,” “Alaskan” and “Pacific,” lent themselves to higher mislabeling rates.”

Status symbols

Wild Alaskan Chinook has become more valuable as they have become increasingly rare. The rarity makes some people believe the fish are especially desirable.

The Most Expensive, a lifestyle website, puts “Alaskan Wild King Salmon” at number four on its list of “The 10 Most Expensive Fish That Are Tasty to Eat,” three places above plain, old Chinook salmon.

Why the difference?

Because, according to The Most Expensive, “Chinook salmon is the more generic term and often refers to fish bred on fish farms or wild-caught throughout the continental United States.

“On the other hand, Alaskan Wild King salmon is almost always a wild-caught Chinook originating from Alaska’s pristine rivers and coastlines. Because these fish have more unspoiled areas to explore and thrive in, they can grow larger than their continental cousins.”

Except, of course, a significant number of the salmon marketed as  “Alaskan Wild King Salmon” start their lives on “fish farms” and most of the wild Alaska salmon are fish that if allowed to continue their migration would be caught in Canada or the Pacific Northwest, part of the “continental” domain if they were caught at all.

Hatchery Chinook spend their  first  six months to 18 months in pens – like net-pen salmon – before being released to the sea where most of them promptly die. High death rates are the norm for naturally spawning fish, as well, but the hatchery fish appear to have even higher death rates.

Thanks to hatcheries, scientists now believe more young Chinook salmon emerge from the Columbia River, the biggest single producer of Chinook on the continent, than at any time in history, but once at sea, nowhere near the number survive to return to the river as adults.

Left-leaning Propublica and Oregon Public Broadcasting blame the decline on the hatcheries themselves for inbreeding that lowers genetic diversity and “make it harder for them to survive in the wild,” and the hydroelectric dams that have long been blamed for declines in Chinook numbers.  

But the problem doesn’t appear nearly that simple. Studies of bird predation have shown potential problems with tagged smolts indicating “that avian predation annually accounted for 8.6 percent to 42.8 percent of all sources of Columbia River smolt mortality,” and then there is the changing nature of a warming Gulf of Alaska where pink salmon, both wild and hatchery fish, have taken over.

A highly opportunistic species, humpies – as Alaskans are prone to call those pinks – appear to enjoy a competitive advantage in warmer waters. Fishery researchers in 2018 reported more salmon inhabiting the North Pacific Ocean than at any time in recorded history, but 70 percent of them were humpies.

Two years later, a separate group of researchers reported a 65 percent, coastwide, decades-long decline in the productivity of Chinook, aka king, salmon. The study showed a precipitous drop in Chinook production in both dammed and undammed watersheds.

There is now considerable debate as to whether, and if so how, the decline of kings, the largest of the six species of Pacific salmon, is linked to the rise of pinks, the smallest of the Pacific salmon. ProPublica and Oregon Public Radio have also suggested the kings are on the verge of “vanishing,” but scientists tend to believe that they will simply struggle on at much lower productivity than in the past, something not unusual in natural ecosystems.

Past beliefs in a fictional “balance of nature” which resulted in some imaginary point at which nature functioned perfectly on its own have increasingly given way to recognition of different levels of equilibrium – high, low and various points between – based on changes in weather or climate, or sometimes the whims of man.

The whole idea of “maximum sustained yield” (MSY) in Alaska fisheries is based on the theory that fish managers can maintain a high equilibrium and thus maximize productivity for commercially valuable species of fish with sometimes little regard as to what this might mean for less-human-desirable species. No one worries about “managing” freshwater stickleback or saltwater “Irish lords” to maintain MSY.

Likewise, the desire to maintain MSY in one place, say Alaska, can lead to its steady decline in another place, say Canada and the Pacific Northwest where Chinook have been on a downward slide for years due in part to pressure from vested Alaska interests hoping to maintain what, pound for pound, is the state’s most valuable commercial fishery.  Those troll-caught Alaska winter kings are now going for about $10 per pound at the dock in the 49th state, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 

That’s approximately 30 times what a humpy has been worth in recent years.

This is the seafood business in Alaska, and for a long time, it was wholly defensible. Those so-called “feeder kings” passing through Alaska on their way back to Canada, Washington, Oregon and Idaho are feeding on Alaska pastures, and for that reason, Alaska deserves a fair share of any harvest of the fish. But with the salmon of Canada and the Lower 48 struggling the way they are, it has become a lot harder to determine what is fair.

All too familiar with all of this, I skipped the king salmon in favor of the seafood pasta. being in a bit of a mood for past anyway. It wasn’t all that good.  Not that it was bad, but it’s hard to beat a fresh king filet properly prepared.

So maybe the real moral of this story is that sometimes it is better to know only a little than to know too much.











8 replies »

  1. if the SE troller fleet, lose their lawsuit, there will very little “Alaskan wild caught” king on the market.
    Majority of tribal harvested Columbia River hatchery chinook, during late fall/winter, are sold within the Seattle/Portland i5 corridor

  2. Idaho restaurants aren’t the only place mislabeling fish on their menus. In Minnesota, several restaurants were selling walleye, but turns out it wasn’t . The walleye was actually a much cheaper fish called Zander. It’s an imported fish from Western Europe. I guess this is an example of bait and switch more than a labeling problem, but either way, it’s fishy.

  3. The hoi polloi, hyphen averse, stick with two well worn suffixes, “ish” and “y”. While “wildish” may be accurate but unnerving, I think “fishy” somehow fitting 😉

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