Alaska Seafood: 5 kinds of Wild Salmon

King, Silver, Sockeye, Pink and Chum. When I said I was going fishing in Alaska I bet the first thing that popped into your head was salmon. Wild-caught Alaska salmon is indeed an important part of Alaska’s identity and needs to be sustained for future generations. Iconic images of grizzlies snatching monster-sized King’s from the mouths of rivers and streams mingle with wild tales of the beauties that got away. Everyone who’s ever hit the water in Alaska has a fish tale to tell. Myself included.

You may know that I was invited along with 7 other food writers and 2 chefs to go fishing in Alaska with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI). We hit the open water in search of halibut, rockfish and of course the iconic salmon. It was cold and blustery. On the second day at sea our deckhand Johnny stated that it was the roughest day on the water he’d seen all summer. People puked. I must admit it was an exhilerating day. A Top 10 life moment for me, but the tale I choose to tell today has little to do with the high seas or the antics of me and my fellow fishermen (and fisherwomen?).

commercial fishermen in AlaskaI want to tell you something about the commercial salmon industry in Alaska. Last summer was a record for commercial salmon fishing in Southeast Alaska, with gross earnings topping $200 million, the highest since statehood. A large catch is a very good sign that the salmon population is robust. Which may seem counter-intuitive. More fish caught means fewer fish leftover, right?

Well, not necessarily. Every summer throughout Alaska the Department of Fish and Game hire people to count salmon as they migrate upstream. They actually count the fish that enter the mouths of rivers and streams. This helps them estimate how many fish will spawn, allowing them to calculate a catch for upcoming seasons. It’s very scientific and surprisingly accurate. For the purposes of my fish tale, it helps us understand that a lot of fish caught means a lot more than great news for Alaska’s economy. It means the salmon fishery is well managed and healthy. Which translates into plenty of tasty tid-bits from the seas around Alaska for all of us.

But what happens when these numbers reflect a less than hardy population of a certain species? Well, then state and federal fisheries managers have to step in and close certain fisheries. This is a very difficult decision affecting the livelihoods of a great many Alaskans. Just this week the U.S. commerce department approved disaster relief for the people in the King salmon dependent western region of Alaska because fishery managers predict that this year’s Yukon River King salmon run will be worse than last year, and that was the worst showing for Kings in 30 years.

spawning salmonI’m not an expert and I hope I’m getting the details correct. I believe the counting of the fish (which leads to the decision on how many or how few salmon may be harvested) is an important, though often painful, part of maintaining and sustaining the commercial fishing lifestyle that is so important to Alaska. Alaska has written into their constitution that its natural resources need to be sustained for future generations of Alaskans. This philosophy means that the state as a whole makes sustainability of all its natural resources a priority. Including seafood. So when I read about these closures I have to think that it’s a part of the plan to keep Alaskans fishing for the long haul. Because I have read up on the subject and traveled as far as Norway to learn a little bit about the management of fisheries. Time and time again the Alaskan fisheries management is held up as a model for other parts of the world.

Though all this information is interesting to me, it might bore the pants off you. So I also have this. One of the most interesting parts of this most interesting trip was some of the culinary things I learned about salmon. As I said ASMI brought in 2 chefs, Dan EnosPatrick Hoogerhyde. These guys know their fish and I plan to share a recipe from each of them in the near future. But they also brought in samples (whole fish samples!) of all 5 of the wild Alaskan species of salmon. King Chinook Salmon, Silver Coho Salmon, Red Sockeye Salmon, Pink Humpback Salmon, and Chum Keta Salmon.

5 types of Alaskan salmonWhat I learned might surprise you. While the five species of Pacific salmon all share a general outward resemblance, they vary in size, flesh color, and flavor. So the chefs took to identifying, filleting and cooking all 5 varieties so we could experience these fish for ourselves.

My take away was this: the reason wild-caught Alaskan salmon is considered so good is as simple as I might have guessed. As with most things in the kitchen, the flavor in salmon comes from the fat. The fat is developed by the lifestyle of the fish and the environment in which it matured. Alaska’s cold, pristine waters and the abundance of a natural diet give Alaskan salmon unparalleled flavor. The fat content of salmon depends not only on the genetic make-up of each species, but also on its spawning cycle. The longer and more vigorous the freshwater trip, the more fat the fish will carry as it leaves the ocean. Oh, and all that fat? It’s the good kind. Full of Omega-3s.

King (Chinook) Salmon
Also known as Chinook, they are prized for their color, high oil content, firm texture and succulent flesh

Sockeye (Red) Salmon

The second most abundant Alaska Salmon species is Sockeye. The distinct, deep red flesh retains its color throughout cooking, and brings dramatic impact to any presentation.

Silver (Coho) Salmon

With its orange-red flesh, firm texture and delicate flavor, Coho have gained wide consumer acceptance. Their size and excellent color retention properties make them popular in both frozen and smoked forms. This is the type we caught at sea.

Pink (Humpback) Salmon

Pinks are distinguished by their light, rosy pink-colored flesh, tender texture and delicate flavor and are an economical choice for a variety of recipes.

Chum (Keta) Salmon

Keta have a firm texture, tempting orange-pink color and delicate flavor.

wild Alaskan salmon

So here’s to my fishing buddies: Kristy Bernardo / The Wicked Noodle, Susan Bronson / A Less Processed Life, John Donohue / Stay at Stove Dad, Aran Goyoaga / Cannelle et Vanille, Marla Meridith / Family Fresh Cooking, Béatrice Peltre / La Tartine Gourmande, Helen Rosner / Saveur Magazine GREG