East vs. West: Battle Salmon

Sockeye sizzling in butter
Sockeye sizzling in butter

Moving from Halifax to Victoria gives me a great opportunity to compare and contrast foodstuffs with their opposite coast counterparts. This idea came to me as I was cooking the lovely sockeye fillets, above. Without further ado, I present Battle Salmon.

Atlantic Salmon (salmo salar)
Canada’s east coast is home to one salmon species, known widely and simply as Atlantic salmon. Interestingly, these salmon do not need salt water to survive, and landlocked populations (ounaniche) are not uncommon.
Sadly, due to overfishing and habitat interference, the wild Atlantic salmon numbers dropped to critical levels by the 2000’s, and there is no commercial Canadian Atlantic fishery. Recent numbers have indicated, however, that the native population is surging back thanks to conservations efforts. We should have taken the cue from Scotland, where Alexander II passed legislation protecting Atlantic salmon in 1318 (yes, thirteen eighteen).
What’s available on the open market is farmed salmon, and there’s much debate about the viability, environmental concerns, food safety, and ethics of fish farming–so much so, that I’m not scratching that itch here. Taste-wise, the aquaculture industry has managed to produce a fish that does stack up well to wild salmon and especially if prepared using stronger ingredients or cooking techniques that prevent detection of flavour subtleties. But, in weighing desire for salmon against the potential issues, my scales come down on the side of caution, and I prefer not to eat farmed fish.

Pacific Salmon
There are seven species of Pacific salmon, two of which are indigenous to Japan, the other five found here in BC.
As I type this, sockeye salmon fishing boats are poised and ready at the mouth of the Fraser River, where 23 MILLION fish are estimated to leave the sea and head up the river to spawn. The catch window is 3pm to 6pm local time, so about an hour from now.
Sockeye, aka red salmon, turns blood red with a green head when it returns to spawn. Landlocked sockeye are known as kokanee.
Coho, or silver salmon, are popular ocean game fish because apparently, they put up quite a fight and are very exuberant in their pursuit of lures.
Chum salmon is also called dog or keta salmon, has the largest range of any Pacific salmon but is the least commercial.
Pink, or humpback salmon are the ones the colour “salmon pink” refers to–they eat a lot of shrimp and krill, which gives that pink shade. They have the shortest life span and thus are the smallest of the Pacific salmon, topping out at around 6.5kg.
The Chinook, or King salmon, is the largest of the Pacific species, weighing up to 61kg and is prized by anglers. Certain Native American tribes value the Chinook highly; it is the salmon around which most native mythology revolves. Chinook is also called “Spring” salmon locally.

But how about taste? Widely available, sockeye and coho have very red, sometimes reddish orange flesh, and a rich taste, great for the table and most commonly sold whole, fillets or steaks. Chinook has more limited availability, and is a lighter colour. It has the highest oil content of these five, and as such is most often smoked. Certain chum populations are also red, with firm flesh and medium oil content, also great as fillets. Pink salmon is very mild, soft, and typically sold canned or used in other salmon products, like fishcakes. The locals have told me that fresh pink salmon is very good and should not be discounted too quickly, and I will follow up that with more research (for me, research equates to cooking and eating).

I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy the three most common table fish (Coho, sockeye, and Chinook), and would argue that wild Atlantic salmon can stand up taste wise to any of these.
Farmed salmon, however, pales in comparison in both taste and texture. As farmed salmon is the only one easily found on the market on the East Coast, I must concede the victory to the West.

Battle Salmon: West Coast for the Win.


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