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Chum salmon rising

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."

Sustainable Fishing & Environmental Stewardship from Washington to Alaska from Pangeality Productions on Vimeo.

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.

After a couple of hours, the net is hauled back. Pete is multi-tasking now, steering the boat, controlling the winch, spooling the net, and then stopping to pick salmon out of the net. It is a clean catch, with exactly 50 salmon and one dogfish. As they come aboard, Knutson carefully slits each fish at the gills to bleed it and tosses the body into a bin of seawater chilled to 30 degrees.

Skipper Pete Knutson disentangling a chum salmon. Photo: K. Bailey

Deckhand Drew Koshar picks a fish out of the bin. "Now that's a beautiful fish," he says with respect. He picks out another. "This might be the best salmon we've caught all night." He guts, heads and scrubs it, then drops it into the chilled seawater hold. Later the fish will be graded by quality, depending on their color, freshness and thickness, and filleted, smoked, or pickled. The females' eggs will be removed and processed into "ikura," a high-quality caviar popular in Asia.

Drew is also in charge of marketing for Loki Fish Co. He tells me about a recent cooking demonstration in nearby Mt. Vernon in which he'd sprinkled grilled chum fillet with garlic salt. Several customers remarked that it was the best salmon they'd ever tasted.

Still, the lack of a consistent quality product in the retail marketplace and customer acceptance limits sales of fresh keta. Many of the chum caught in west coast fisheries are crushed in the catching process and quick-frozen without bleeding or dressing them. Then they are shipped to a processor, usually in China (31 of 46 chum salmon processors listed by the Trade Seafood Directory are in China), where they are thawed, processed and re-frozen into individual portions. Some is canned or smoked. The product is shipped to Asia, Europe or back to the U.S.

There are many factors that define a good-eating fresh fish — taste, texture, moisture, color — but the key to finding good keta is locating a retailer supplied by fishermen who maintain the integrity of the fish.

Now it was my turn to taste the humble keta salmon. At my house we eat fish 2 or 3 times a week. In the off-season we buy frozen sockeye and albacore, or fresh Pacific cod and rockfish. When we can find them, we grill sardines, anchovies or Pacific mackerel.

This day we bought our keta salmon at Loki's stall in a Seattle farmer's market and conducted an informal taste test: fresh fillet, frozen vacuum-packed fillets and smoked keta. I brushed a marinade (1/4 c balsamic vinegar, 1/4 c olive oil, a dab of mustard, and a dollop of maple syrup) on each fillet and grilled them in a fish basket on the BBQ. When ready, the grilled fish was topped with a heaping portion of my favorite fresh mango salsa. I also breaded a piece of the frozen keta, pan seared both sides in butter and then finished it off in the oven.

Our unanimous decision: the grilled fresh keta salmon was absolutely yummy. It was moist, mild and had big flakey bites. The grilled previously frozen keta was tasty, but overcooked. (My own fault for cooking thinner fillets in the same fish basket.) The pan fried frozen keta was also delicious. The smoked keta salmon was drier and paler in color than the more familiar sockeye, but was good nonetheless, and should be excellent when mixed with cream cheese or served in a pasta.

Grilled fresh keta salmon (right) and pan-seared frozen keta fillet. Photo: K. Bailey

Later I checked in with celebrated Seattle chef Maria Hines, who shared her view on chum. "Keta is leaner than sockeye or Chinook, but it is a great salmon nevertheless," she said. "It makes sense to use it when you mix this fish with other ingredients."

Knutson agrees. "It feels good to introduce folks to a species that has been scoffed at for years." 

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