Salmon: Exploring Their Lives and Sustainability

Salmon: Exploring Their Lives and Sustainability

We love serving salmon

There’s no denying that it tastes great.  It has delicate texture. When well sourced, salmon carries the health benefits of being high in Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins B3, B6, and B12, vitamin D, biotin, and potassium.

Compared to so many other selections of fish available, salmon populations are relatively easy to manage and make sure they continue to live their life cycles, thrive, and show up as a tasty treat on our plates without any risk to the species. But as easy as it can be to keep them sustainable, there are far too many fisheries around the world that don’t care about maintaining the populations of the gorgeous and decadent fish. The good news is, you can play a part in making sure they stay sustainable.

Taking a quick look at Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app or website, the varieties of salmon cover all three classifications.

  • Best Choice: 15 great options
  • Good Alternative: 37 choices
  • Avoid: 15 decisions you’ll regret

This can be quite confusing. Read on, and we’ll help dispel some incertitude, and show you how to find and stick with the best choices and good alternatives. Next, we’ll also explore the different varieties of salmon and what it means when you hear any one of the several names they are called. Finally, we’ll briefly examine their life cycle, and why that allows most species to easily sustain themselves as long as we take some basic measures – not so much helping them, but making sure we don’t attack their sustainability.

What’s In A Name?

Depending on the restaurant, the type of salmon, the location of the fishery, or the preferences of the person serving it, purveyors like to give different salmon different names. Some might be named after a river where they were caught, and others might be called differently for a host of reasons such as a particular characteristic. At the end of the day, there are only seven species of Pacific salmon. Below is a list of the various species, and a few of the ways you might hear them named.

Chinook Salmon

  • King
  • Quinnat
  • Spring
  • Tyee

Chum Salmon

  • Dog
  • Keta
  • Silverbrite

Coho Salmon

  • Medium red
  • Silver salmon or “silvers”

Pink Salmon

  • Humpback
  • Humpy

Sockeye Salmon

  • Red
  • Kokanee (freshwater)
  • Blueback

There are also two Asian species of salmon: Masu and Amagu. We won’t be discussing them in this article as they are rarely seen in United States stores or restaurants.

Steelhead are very similar to salmon, but they are a trout. They’re called steelhead and not trout because they’ve spent time living in the ocean. If they live their entire lives in freshwater, they are still trout.

Then there’s the Atlantic salmon. Yes, their reputation precedes them. Yes, there are many Atlantic salmon farmers in the world that use disgraceful practices in farming their fish. There have been articles in recent years about restaurants across America putting King salmon on their menu and then serving Atlantic.

The good news is, there are also several companies turning this trend around. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch has even listed some in their Best Choice and Good Alternative categories. We’ll see what the future holds for the Atlantic salmon.

With that said, we don’t and won’t serve Atlantic salmon. We don’t need to do so. We’re just too proud of the food we serve to allow anything like that into the building.

As you can see above, the names can be confusing, and we didn’t even get into salmon named after their spawning river, like the Copper River salmon. By the way, if someone serves Copper River salmon, the salmon they’re serving could be Chinook, Coho or Sockeye.

Life Cycle

While there is some level of variance, most North American Pacific salmon follow a similar life cycle. After they are spawned and hatch, they live and grow through a few stages in their spawning river for over a year before making their way to the ocean.

Except for the Chum, they will travel hundreds or thousands of miles, over great elevation changes navigating the waterways and human-made dams when possible to get to the Pacific Ocean. Once in the ocean, salmon can travel hundreds or thousands of miles from their river.

Salmon eat invertebrates like squid and shrimp, insects, krill, and plankton. The natural astaxanthin, a beta-carotene in their food, gives their meat that wonderful red or orange hue.

In the last few weeks before salmon returns to their spawning waters, they will undergo some incredible physiological changes, from being a mature adult to a spawning adult. They store a hump of fat on their back, and their snouts develop hooks. Most species change colors. In addition to these visible structural changes, their gills have to convert to process water that doesn’t have salt, reversing the change they made when they first transitioned from freshwater to saltwater inhabitants.

Once they begin swimming upstream, spawning adults never eat again. They live off their fat stores until they reach their spawning water. Once there, they mate. After not eating for weeks and the grueling work of getting to their spawning waters, they are utterly spent.

A single female will lay up to 12,000 eggs depending on species. She will guard the eggs for the next month until right before they hatch, and then she dies, leaving her offspring to follow the same life cycle.

Barriers to Sustainability

When two fish spawn 12,000 eggs, you would think that species should quickly repopulate itself, and to a degree, you’d be correct. Of the eggs laid, only a small percentage hatch. Many of the eggs don’t get fertilized. Of those, a small percentage make it to adulthood. From 12,000 eggs laid, often there are fewer than 100 adult salmon.

Salmon have a serious problem with dams. Fish ladders are an excellent alternative when they’re in place, but what about the dams built without these necessary features? What about dams where they were an afterthought, installed at a later time? When unable to make it to their original spawning ground, some will spend their entire energy reserve trying to get past the dam. Never making it to their spawning ground before running out of energy, they never get their chance to spawn. But what happens when a dam has been built with the fish ladders in place, allowing spawning adults to access their spawning grounds? Their young, called smolts, must traverse the dams on their way downstream. Despite protections being put in place, a percentage of smolts will miss the ladders and get caught in the turbines.

For decades, states have operated hatcheries to help boost the number of salmon that spawn in the rivers. Once touted as a great solution to sustaining salmon populations, ecologists today aren’t so sure. In many cases, they’re now finding that the hatchery salmon hurt the native populations. They compete for food and spawning space. These hatchery fish have a greater tendency to spawn in a different river from where they first hatched, which can mean that they throw off the balance of those native to that river.

Over the course of many years, it was the perfect storm of species-threatening events. Over the course of time, we’ve done irreparable damage to the populations of various salmon that return to our rivers to spawn. Even if we removed the dams, destroyed our infrastructure, shut down the hatcheries and stopped fishing, many subspecies are already gone forever.

While there is no way to undo the past, the good news is that we can control the future.

So what do we do?

Asking questions is the key. Show that as a consumer you care. When you walk into a restaurant and see seafood on the menu, ask how much information they can give you about the fish they’re going to serve you. If they can’t tell you where it was caught and by whom, use caution. Ask if they’re adhering to Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch standards.

In restaurants today, you can track the products used to make a cheeseburger to the different farms, and even the specific plants and animals that went into making that meal. Yet for some reason, you can still purchase seafood that hasn’t followed the same standard. While we might not be able to track what happened to a wild-caught fish the day before it was caught, at Southpark Seafood we only source our seafood from providers that will give us the information leading back to where a fish was caught. We source our out-of-season King salmon from a company in New Zealand that raises them without the need to ever use antibiotics or chemicals, using methods with amazingly low impact on the environment surrounding their net pens.

If your server doesn’t know the answers to your questions, make them find out. Even if your server doesn’t care when you first ask, they’ll start to care when it affects what you choose when you dine with them. If your server’s management hears they’re losing business because they’re not on board, they’ll change.

It’s not that long ago that it was difficult to be a sustainable restaurant, even in Portland. We were one of a couple restaurants in the area that pioneered the concept. In Portland today, it’s more cost effective for restaurants to adopt sustainable practices than to waste resources the way they did as recently as the mid 2000s.

Vote with your wallet; vote with your feet. What is your best bet? If going out for seafood, choose a restaurant that has partnered with Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. They make it easy to find the best choices at their website, empowering you as the consumer with the information to aid in keeping the oceans sustainable every time you sit down to a meal.


Ōra King Salmon