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Long live the wild king

May 9, 2007

Today, fishing boats are streaming from California harbors for the first salmon catch of the season -- and since 2005. For three weeks, until May 31, the waters closest to San Francisco -- from Point Arena (Mendocino County) in the north, to Pigeon Point in southern San Mateo County -- are open to commercial fishing of wild king salmon.

Finally, we can eat; we can celebrate. But the cheers and consumption, experts say, will be short-lived. That's because the area will be closed for the entire month of June, the most abundant month for local salmon, in an attempt to preserve enough fish to restock the Klamath River spawning grounds.

That means local salmon will be plentiful this month, but next month supplies will shrink. Prices this season are hard to predict, but at press time locally caught salmon was retailing for as high as $26.50 per pound, compared to $14.99 for Washington salmon and $11.99 for salmon from Alaska.

The salmon life cycle is complicated, with the fish moving from freshwater to saltwater and back to freshwater. Fish from the Klamath and Sacramento rivers mingle in the ocean off Northern California, but the surviving fish return to their home rivers to spawn. Although Sacramento River stocks are now healthy, the Klamath River salmon are in danger of disappearing altogether.

The Klamath has been subjected to the demands of various interests, such as industrial farms that divert water and the hydroelectric power industry, which builds dams along the river. Low flows and water conditions are contributing to the collapse of the Klamath's salmon population.

Ensuring future supply

Last year, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the federal agency that manages marine fisheries, closed the local fishery entirely -- a draconian action that will likely be repeated.

"This is the most important issue of the century for food," says Paul Johnson, president of the San Francisco wholesale and retail dealer Monterey Fish, and author of the forthcoming cookbook, "Fish Forever,'' due out next month (John Wiley and Sons, Inc.).

"If we don't have the vision to clean up our own backyard, we have no chance of ensuring a supply for the future."

Johnson and U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, are part of a group of chefs, fishermen, wholesalers and distributors, ecological organizations, and passionate proponents of sustainable seafood who were in Washington, D.C., Tuesday to persuade lawmakers to look at the big picture of salmon and sustainability.

The country lacks a broad federal water management policy to ensure healthy salmon runs in the future. The campaign is not pushing a specific piece of legislation but rather asking for an overall policy.

One problem, they say, is that so many states and congressional committees are involved. "The jurisdiction and geography is so broad, and there is nothing to protect the salmon," says Cat Lazaroff of Earthjustice, a national environmental group that is co-sponsoring the call to action.

In a letter to fellow chefs, Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse wrote: "Please join me in asking Congress to take real action to restore healthy habitat for salmon and make this iconic fish once again plentiful, both in the streams and on the table." More than 200 chefs signed on, with California chefs being the largest contingent.

"We hope to raise the profile of wild salmon and of coastal fishermen who catch them because we need the both of them," said John McManus, spokesman for Earthjustice, which is based in Oakland. "Coastal communities have survived and evolved on the salmon runs. Without salmon, we don't have fishermen, and our coastal communities suffer.''

Pietro Parravano, a Half Moon Bay salmon fisherman and president of the Institute for Fishery Resources, a fishermen's association, says local fishermen cannot survive another closure such as 2006. Such closures also frustrate consumers who buy his salmon at the Palo Alto Farmers' Market.

"It's summertime; we're used to having salmon on our plates. How can one watershed (the Klamath) cripple one economic engine on the West Coast?"

Educating public, Congress

Earthjustice founded the consortium of groups, including chefs, to pull together a statement and to meet with lawmakers from the Northwest and California.

Besides chefs, consumers can voice their concerns by signing the Salmon Consumer Bill of Rights and Responsibilities on the Why Wild Salmon? Web site (, which Lazaroff and Johnson will also present to members of Congress in various meetings throughout the week.

Parke Ulrich, executive chef of Farallon in San Francisco, is among many Bay Area chefs who joined the campaign.

"We made the decision almost 10 years ago now, to try and serve as sustainable a fish as we could, and over the last 10 years, we've become tighter on that commitment," he says. As a result, he now uses no farmed salmon, and the restaurant purchaser makes inquiries about "what boat, is it long-line, hand-line and what captain," to determine if the fish is sustainable.

Ulrich hopes to educate consumers in the Farallon dining room.

"We want to open people's eyes on river and water management. That way we can create a future for the salmon. It's going to take awhile for that to come around."

Chefs like Ulrich can also help the cause by buying wild salmon. Lazaroff, of Earthjustice, says this will show Congress consumers' preference for wild over farmed salmon, and it will support fishing families.

Paul Johnson, formerly a chef, knows the culinary magic of wild salmon, as in the accompanying recipe for Crispy Skinned Salmon from his forthcoming cookbook.

"They are ocean-trolled and individually handled by small-boat fisherman, which makes them better quality. I compare it to wild blackberries," he says.

"I would hate to see us have no choice but aquacultured fish. They're the same as store-bought blackberries. They never really sing with flavor."

Following next month's closure, the local fishing territory will reopen in July for two months. Various small areas of the California coast between the Oregon border and the Mexico border are subject to a patchwork of open-close dates and regulations, many intended to protect the endangered Klamath River salmon returning to spawn.

Still, McManus says, there is some good news.

"We can get this fish back. We absolutely can. They're a renewable resource. The ocean isn't letting us down. It's the freshwater habitat that's caused our declines. If there were the political will, we could restore most West Coast salmon run within 10 years."

Fishing for solutions
Support sustainable seafood and fishing families by purchasing wild salmon, preferably local and line-caught.

Voice your concerns by signing the Salmon Consumer Bill of Rights and Responsibilities at

Olive Oil-Roasted Wild King Salmon with Tomato Gazpacho, Beans & Crabmeat
Serves 4

This high-end, wow-'em recipe from executive chef Parke Ulrich of Farallon, includes four elements -- a gazpacho, parboiled beans, oil-poached salmon and Dungeness crabmeat, but none is difficult and the dish comes together easily, especially if you make the cold soup ahead of time.

Tomato gazpacho

2 ripe red tomatoes

1/2 clove garlic

1/4 small red onion

1/4 cucumber, peeled and seeded

1/2 jalapeno pepper

1/2 bunch basil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1-2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

Extra virgin olive oil


1 1/2 to 2 cups olive oil

4 skin-on fillets king salmon, about 5-6 ounces each

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 pound Romano, yellow wax and Blue Lake beans, cleaned

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon

8 ounces picked lump Dungeness crabmeat

For the gazpacho: Place the tomatoes, garlic, onion, cucumber, jalapeno, basil and vinegars in a blender and puree until smooth. Season with salt and pepper and strain through a medium sieve. Add olive oil to taste. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

For the salmon: Place olive oil in an 8-quart pot (or any other high-sided pot to reduce oil splatters). Gently warm oil over medium heat. Season salmon with salt and pepper and carefully place salmon in oil skin-side down (the oil should come halfway up the sides of the salmon).

Adjust heat if necessary, you don't want to cook the outside too fast; the salmon should be cook through. After about 3 minutes, flip the salmon over using tongs and again being careful not to splash the hot oil. Finish the salmon, about 3 minutes more, and place on a kitchen towel to absorb any extra oil.

Meanwhile, blanch beans in salted boiling water until tender, place in bowl and season with salt and pepper and chopped tarragon.

To serve, place 1/4 cup of the gazpacho in a shallow bowl and place beans in the center. Place salmon against the beans and top with crabmeat.

Per serving: 405 calories, 45 g protein, 10 g carbohydrate, 20 g fat (3 g saturated), 131 mg cholesterol, 293 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.

Crisp-Skinned Salmon with Chimichurri Sauce
Serves 4

Paul Johnson, author of "Fish Forever," gives a surefire method to make fish with crispy skin. It is important to cook it in an edgeless, or low-edge, flat steel pan such as a Mexican comal or a cast-iron griddle pan. The technique used in this recipe will ensure crisp-skinned results with any skin-on fillet, from mackerel to black sea bass, whether grilled, sauteed or baked.

Two 12-ounce king salmon fillets, skin on

3 to 4 tablespoons kosher or coarse sea salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

Chimichurri sauce

1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley, stemmed and minced, about 2/3 cup

1/4 cup loosely packed fresh oregano, minced, or to taste

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon kosher sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground chile or cayenne pepper

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup good sherry or red wine vinegar

Instructions: Salt skin side only of the salmon fillets. The skin should be almost entirely covered with salt. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 475°.

Combine the chimichurri ingredients in a mixing bowl. Hand-chopped ingredients will give the sauce a more relish-like consistency, but it can be made in food processor for a less chunky texture. Just be sure to mash the garlic before processing with the rest of the ingredients.

Rinse the salt off the salmon and thoroughly dry. Place the salmon on a cutting board, skin side up. Holding and edge of the skin, slide the sharp edge of a chef's knife across the skin at a 90-degree angle away from you. Applying light pressure, repeat 8 to 10 times. This will draw excess moisture to the surface so it can be wiped away.

With a sharp knife, lightly score the skin of the salmon in a crosshatch pattern, making about 1-inch squares. Repeat with other fillet.

Heat comal or griddle pan over high heat on the stovetop until very hot. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to pan and lay the salmon skin side down. Shake pan immediately to keep skin from sticking. Cook for about two minutes, continuing to shake the pan often to keep the skin from sticking.

Place into preheated oven for 15 minutes (do not turn the fish over).

Cut the fillet in half and serve skin side up with chimichurri sauce.

Per serving: 410 calories, 37 g protein, 2 g carbohydrate, 27 g fat (4 g saturated), 77 mg cholesterol, 661 mg sodium, 0 fiber.