by Marion Nestle
Jun 21 2010

Wild Alaskan salmon: food politics in action

On a tour arranged and paid for by the Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute (see Note below),  I spent last week observing salmon fishing and processing in Anchorage and at remote places 600 miles to the southwest.

I could not help thinking about federal dietary guidelines.  The 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has just filed its report.  It recommends consuming two 4-ounce servings of seafood per week, preferably fatty fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Develop safe, effective, and sustainable practices to expand aquaculture and increase the availability of seafood to all segments of the population. Enhance access to… information that helps consumers make informed seafood choices.

This, among other fish, means salmon, particularly wild Alaskan salmon because they have higher levels of omega-3 fats than the farmed fish and because Alaska is working hard to maintain the sustainability of its wild fish.

Wild Alaskan salmon caught 6-19-10. Top to bottom: King (Chinook), Red (Sockeye), Chum (Keta), Pink

To be sustainable, fish have to remain in the sea and steams long enough to reproduce. This means controlling the number of people who are allowed to catch fish (through licenses and permits) as well as the number of fish they catch (through restrictions on fishing methods and times and places).

The Alaskan system for doing this works fairly well but is under constant pressure.  Commercial fishers want to be able to catch all the salmon they can with no restrictions. Communities that have always depended on salmon for sustenance want to be able to continue doing so, and do not want fish caught before they get to community spawning streams.  Hence: salmon politics.

Here are some thoughts about what I observed:

Labor conditions in the processing plants: workers were imported from the Philippines or Eastern Europe, and worked 12 to 16 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week, for months at a time.

The amount of hand labor involved: Fishermen haul nets and sort fish by hand, and processing plant workers remove heads and guts, fillet fish, trip fillets, and debone by hand. In canneries, they weigh cans and clean the contents by hand. Some of this work is highly skilled and so meticulously done that it qualifies as artisanal. All of it is hard and repetitive

Peter Pan salmon cannery, King Cove, Alaska, 6-20-10

The huge numbers of fish that can be caught by commercial fishers: Alaska regulates how fish can be caught (boat size, types of nets), but even so a purse seine picks up thousands of pounds of fish at one time. It is hard to imagine how such fisheries can be sustainable, even when tightly regulated.

Purse seine bringing in the catch

The waste in the system: Some plants had arrangements to supply fish heads, guts, backbones, belly fat, skin, tails, and other parts to be used for pet food or fish meal, but some just ground up the leftovers and flushed them into the water system or back into the ocean. If the wrong fish get into nets, they get tossed back into the sea.

The cold chain (temperature controls): fish stay fresher longer if they are held temperatures just above freezing throughout every step of processing. The tenders (collecting boats) do “RSW,” hold fish in a tank filled with Refrigerated Sea Water. High quality fish are sampled at arrival at plants to make sure their flesh is below 35 degrees. Two of the three plants we visited were careful with temperature controls. The third, however, allowed fish to sit in holding tanks for days or to remain on stopped processing lines at room temperature while workers went to lunch.

The role of science: Geneticists are madly working on methods to identify salmon by stream of origin as a means to settle arguments about who gets to catch which fish. This, of course, could backfire if the salmon turn out to be from Russia or Canada.

The love of fishermen for what they do: The ones we met love their work and have been doing it for decades. They just wish they got treated better by processors and paid better for the fish they catch.

As fish eaters, we don’t need to consider where fish comes from or how it gets to us. I will be looking at fresh, frozen, and canned salmon in grocery stores and fish markets with new appreciation for what it takes to get them to us.

I haven’t said anything about methylmercury and PCBs, fish safety, international disputes over fishing rights, or issues about organic or farmed fish. For these topics, see the five chapters on fish in What to Eat.

If we want to continue to have fish to eat, we must pay attention to such issues, uncomfortable as they may be to contemplate.

Note: The Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute is a trade association supported by the seafood processing industry:

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) was created over twenty years ago as a cooperative partnership between the Alaska seafood industry and state government to advance the mutually beneficial goal of a stable seafood industry in Alaska. It is Alaska’s “official seafood marketing agency”, and is established under state law as a public corporation…[It] is divided into three distinct marketing programs: international, foodservice and retail. All three programs are designed to enhance the appeal and popularity of Alaska Seafood. The international program operates in the European Union, China, and Japan, while the retail and foodservice programs conduct their activities in the U.S.

  • Cathy Richards

    Marion — can you comment on why it is 2 x 4 ounce portions? Isn’t 4 ounces excessive? If we’re going to promote the depletion of our oceans, shouldn’t we do it with smaller portion sizes more often? Like 3 x 2 1/2 ounce portions instead?

    As a dietitian I’ve been uncomfortable recommending increased servings of fish to people. From a nutrition viewpoint it makes sense. From an ecosystem viewpoint it is completely irresponsible. We cannot sustain our current level fish intake (which nutritionally is too low) due to unsustainable fishing and seafood farming techniques (although oyster and mussel farms are very intriguing).

    How could we possibly support people having higher intakes? It would be a small health gain, for a few generations while supplies last, at the huge expense of the developing world and our oceans, and therefore our planet. We must take a more holistic approach to our dietary guidelines. Consider individuals as parts of families, of communities, of countries, of the world — NOT as individuals alone.

    Maybe if we do the Pollan or Nestle thing, and eat well, mostly plants (including seeds and nuts), & not too much, we wouldn’t need extra amounts of fish oils to solve our health problems. There is no responsible way for us to increase our fish intake.

    And don’t get me started on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and my worries about how that might affect the whole food chain of the Atlantic ocean for decades….

  • Lindsay

    Check out the movie REDGOLD. Put out by the BANFF Mountain Film Festival in the 2009 tour. Wonderful documentary on the salmon runs in Alaska.

  • Great commentary and insight. Thank you.

    Being way out of town, you may (possibly) have missed the European Parliament voting against front of pack color warning labels.

    Pressure from food manufacturers won the day when they argued and lobbied that some foods such as cheese, “which can be good in moderation,” they said, will always have red labels (a sign of too much fat) and so the existing color coded system was flawed.

    A new system is being reviewed which will rely on guided daily recommendations and wording being more prominent on the front of packs!

  • As someone who cares deeply about sustainability, the environment, and both human and animal rights, I’m just about at my wit’s end with regards to making the “right” choices.

    I’m willing (and thankfully able) to pay more for food that has been obtained through *truly* sustainable and humane means — but how am I really to know if it is?

    Even the holy grail of sustainability — wild Alaskan salmon — has its demons, apparently.

    Marion, please keep up this great work – it’s critically important to all us.

  • Emily

    I feel sick at the thought of these beings suffocating to death, only to have their demise be in vain because they were just in the wrong net at the wrong time.

    I am so proud to be a vegetarian. I would not be able to live with myself were it otherwise.

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