Ever consider eating the lowly chum salmon? The poor cousin of tasty relatives like chinook, coho and sockeye, chum has gotten a bad rap over the years. But when "keta salmon," as it is now marketed, is caught fresh from the ocean and processed quickly, the mild taste and flaky texture make it a great eating fish. And at $7.50/lb for a thick fresh fillet, it compares favorably to fresh Chinook's $29.99/lb price tag and even previously frozen sockeye, which runs around $12.99/lb.
In early November, I caught a ride aboard the Njord, a commercial fishing boat, for an evening of harvesting chum salmon in Seattle's front yard, Elliot Bay. The Seattle skyline was ablaze to accommodate downtown diners and professionals working late. Just beyond them, in the shadows of the skyscrapers, out on the blackness of the sea, we were catching chum.
Seattle skyline from the Njord. Photo: Lokipix
My host was owner and skipper Pete Knutson, a Puget Sound gillnetter and anthropology professor at Seattle Central concerned with the sustainability of local fish. Knutson and his sons operate Loki Fish Co., a family business that delivers fish directly to the consumer. When Pete is on the water, his oldest son Jonah is usually working nearby on his own boat, the Loki. Their goal is to deliver a quality product at a reasonable price.
For Loki Fish Co. the local chum fishery is a story of responsible fishing, of careful treatment of the fish product and of sustainable seafood made possible at the edge of a metropolis. "We fish chum and pink [another undervalued salmon species] because, in terms of Puget Sound, these are the healthiest runs," Knutson says. "Right now they are doing particularly well because it seems that ocean conditions are good for these fish. Most of the chum we catch in Puget Sound and all of the pinks are wild spawning populations. The wild coho and Chinook salmon are in deep trouble in Puget Sound because of paving, development, extractive forestry, poor agricultural practices and generally the lack of strong riparian protections."
Also retailed as keta salmon, Pacific salmon and Silver Brite, Chum is Puget Sound's most abundant wild salmon. Each year about a million of them return from 3-4 years at sea to spawn in rivers that empty into Puget Sound. Whereas most other local and wild salmon species have spent the last century in decline, chum shows resilience. According to the Washington Department of Fisheries, only four of Washington's 55 chum salmon stocks need protection. And yet, they're underutilized as a fresh fish product.
That's because keta's gotten a bad rap. The new keta salmon is nothing like the snaggle-toothed mushy fish your grandfather might have pulled out of the river. Native Alaskan Yup'ik fishermen catch chum at the end of its spawning cycle, once it's reached the river. By that time though, the fish has lost fat, become discolored and grown a hooked snout — all traits that fish of the opposite gender apparently find appealing. Human diners don't. The Yup'iks call it the "dog salmon" because they feed it to their huskies.
In salt water, though, the keta is sleek, silver and fatty, loaded with healthy Omega-3s and extremely low in pollutants.
In Puget Sound, the autumn chum fishery opens twice a week for gillnetters and lasts about a month. On this brisk evening, we were hauling in our nets just offshore of Seattle's Space Needle.
Eighteen hundred feet of monofilament gillnet spools out from the stern of the boat, hanging about 100 feet below the surface in vertical suspension. A hefty sea lion cruises up and down the net's length, plucking off salmon, and sea gulls fight over his leftovers. Later, we find a disembodied fish head or two in the net. It's like paying the ecosystem a tax.
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