Special to Super Chef
I moved to Portland more than 13 years ago.
As a former New Yorker, I was unaware of the ecological differences between wild and farmed salmon, let alone knowledgeable of the impact I could make with my own fork.
I did not realize that farmed salmon could negatively impact the wild salmon population or the importance of wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
Now a citizen of Oregon, I have learned that the people of the Pacific Northwest have a special relationship to salmon. It has nurtured us as long as we have been here. It is embedded in our culture, part of our heritage, and central to the lives of numerous citizens of the region.
Five species of salmon (King, Coho, Sockeye, Pink, and Chum) begin their lives in our streams. They head down the river to the ocean and then instinctively return to their birthplace in order to reproduce and repeat the cycle. After spawning, the salmon die and become food for hundreds of diversified species — eagles, bears, even the woodlands themselves.
In June 2010, Trout Unlimited invited me to accompany a few other chefs and food writers to Bristol Bay, Alaska, in order to see and experience a wild salmon fishery first-hand. The waters of the region have long been an integral part of both state and local economies. For generations the waters have contributed to the local job market in providing thousands of people with sustainable work. All five species of Pacific salmon return to Bristol Bay to spawn in the rivers. The Bristol Bay watershed is home to the largest sockeye salmon population in the world (over 7,000,000 fish!) and is their last vestige of a pristine habitat left on the planet.
Many people are dependent on the $500 million this salmon stronghold represents. A number of people here rely on the fish for their livelihood and subsistence. Native Alaskans have been fishing in these waters for thousands of years. Commercial fishermen (and associated canneries) make up Bristol Bay’s major industry and have been for decades. Sports fishermen consider the Bristol Bay area and its rivers the Serengeti of Alaska.
We were invited, primarily, to raise awareness about a proposed copper, gold, and molybdenum mine (known as “Pebble“), which would be located in two of the eight major rivers that feed Bristol Bay, the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers. If approved, Pebble would be one of the largest mines in the world.
Due to its size, geochemistry and location, Pebble runs a high risk of polluting Bristol Bay, and puts the entire watershed at risk. Toxic waste generated from the mine would remain in the watershed forever, threatening the salmon, the economy, and the livelihood of many.
While in Bristol Bay, we visited the commercial fishing grounds and watched the large boats set nets to reel in their catch, with the help of heavy-duty machinery. As a group, we were also brought out on small boats with native Alaskans in order to participate in gillnet salmon fishing. We learned how locations on the bay have been passed through generations and how each generation remains involved in the daily setting and pulling in the nets during the season. We toured Bristol Bay’s processing and flash-freezing sites and learned how quality is maintained while mass packaging and freezing the reddest of all salmon. We fished with a sports fisherman guide and I am proud to say that I caught my first King salmon at 11:30 P.M. – and yes, that is still during daylight.
We spoke with salmon fishery managers and scientists and heard their viewpoint on how the Pebble Mine would impact the local fish and habit. We met community members (including former Alaska State Senator Rick Halford), who had always supported “development” in the past, but have made the prevention of Pebble Mine their cause celebre.
We flew over key sites of the region and saw, first-hand, that nearly every body of water is connected. This is the pathway for the salmon, as they swim miles upstream to lay their eggs and die and it became abundantly clear that if even one stream is polluted the entire watershed is affected.
Thankfully, we also got a chance to work with the salmon of Bristol Bay to learn how native Alaskans smoke their salmon, which preserve the fish during their harsh winters.
Trout Unlimited even invited chefs to prepare a meal for our hosts and community members. The visiting chefs created a different salmon dish for each course: Quentin Topping, the executive chef at Google, made Bristol Bay salmon rillettes, Helene Kennan, from Bon Appetit’s Management Company, made Bristol Bay Salmon Nicoise, Joel Chenet, from Kodiak Alaska’s Mill Bay Coffee & Pastries, made a lovely Salmon Soup with Salmon Dumplings and I made a Grilled Salmon with a Honey-Red Onion Compote & Red Wine Beurre Rouge, a staple dish from my restaurant, Mother’s Bistro & Bar.
The more I learned about the local salmon and their habitat, the more I understood the importance of salmon. After this trip’s eye-opening introduction to the region, I am committed to doing whatever I can to save Bristol Bay. I believe that we all need to take an interest in what’s happening in Bristol Bay, Alaska because in saving the salmon, we are saving ourselves.
N.B.: Mother’s is one of the 13 Dine for Bristol Bay restaurants celebrating Bristol Bay Salmon this week, September 19-25, 2011. Other participating restaurants are: Bamboo Sushi, Bluehour, Chef Naoko, Clarklewis, Clemente’s Restaurant (Astoria), Metrovino, Mother’s Bistro, Nostrana, Papa Haydn (Eastside location), Salty’s on the Columbia, Serratto, Skin and Bones, and The Original.