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Chefs turn up the heat on lawmakers

LES BLUMENTHAL
McClatchy Newspapers
May 9, 2007

You can grill it, broil it, bake it, poach it, barbecue it, smoke it, turn it into croquettes or serve it raw as sushi, with lemon and butter, in a cranberry reduction sauce, with fennel or dill or garlic mashed potatoes.

But turning up the heat on Congress, nearly 200 chefs from around the country warned Tuesday that unless lawmakers act quickly, wild salmon could disappear from their restaurants faster than it takes to boil an egg or ruin a souffle.

Their campaign is called "Vote With Your Fork." Among other things, the chefs support legislation calling for Congress' investigative arm and the National Academy of Sciences to study how to restore the wild runs on the Columbia and Snake rivers _ studies that could include the controversial breaching of four lower Snake River dams.

"It's a marquee item on our menu and everyone has a stake in this," Greg Higgins, the chef and owner of Higgins Restaurant and Bar in Portland, Ore., said of the wild salmon he serves.

On a conference call with reporters, Charles Ramsayer, who was the executive chef at Ray's Boathouse in Seattle for 17 years before opening his own restaurant, Wild Salmon, in New York City, agreed.

"I am flabbergasted how New Yorkers have received wild salmon," he said, adding he wouldn't serve any other type of salmon in his restaurant.

Even as the chefs and others connected with the restaurant business spread out across Capitol Hill to lobby, Jeremy Brown, the Bellingham fisherman who cooked up the idea of getting chefs involved, was setting his gear from his 42-foot boat Barbarole as it cut through a Pacific Ocean fog bank 15 miles off the coast of Washington state.

"Besides things like grapes, nuts and berries, wild salmon are among the last foods that we haven't altered," Brown said by cell phone. "It's authentic. We need to look at these rivers as totally sustainable food machines."

Since the 1990s, more than a dozen wild salmon and steelhead runs on the Columbia and Snake rivers have been protected under the Endangered Species Act. During that time, the issue of breaching the four dams has been on a slow boil.

Environmentalists say the dams represent an almost insurmountable barrier to restoring the runs. Irrigators, power officials and barge interests say there is no scientific evidence that breaching the dams would help salmon, adding the price tag to breaching the dams would be enormous. A federal judge in Portland has rejected the Bush administration's plan for restoring the runs, which did not include dam breaching.

Many of the wild salmon served in restaurants come from Alaska. But the chefs want to see restoration of sustainable wild runs elsewhere on the West Coast. Also involved in the chefs' campaign are three environmental groups, Save Our Wild Salmon, Earthjustice and Trout Unlimited, along with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association.

"Wild salmon is one of the unique, authentic heritage foods of the Pacific Northwest, intricately tied to centuries of Salmon Nation culture and tribal traditions," the chefs said in a letter to lawmakers. "It represents perhaps the country's last great wild meal."

Opponents of dam breaching said the chefs are welcome to lobby, but they have their facts wrong. Darryll Olsen of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association said studies have shown there would be no biological benefits and enormous added costs for the region's economy.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who opposes dam breaching, said the chefs have a right to lobby but are misinformed.

"I don't question any American's right to come to D.C. and have their voice heard, but ignoring factors we know impact endangered fish runs up and down the West Coast like ocean conditions and harvest and instead focusing solely on breaching our Snake River dams is something I will oppose at every turn," Hastings said in an e-mail statement.