After a Crash, Can Pacific Salmon Come Back?

Bill Dawson, the owner of San Francisco's Seafood Suppliers, has been in the salmon business for 35 years. Dawson has seen California's salmon harvest rise and fall, but this year's crash is unprecedented in his lifetime. "The salmon," he says, "have gone off a cliff. It's disastrous."

For the first time, federal and state fisheries officials have closed the season in California and in most of Oregon. The reason: only 90,000 fish returned last fall to the Sacramento River chinook run, down 90 percent from just a few years ago. Experts blame the plunging numbers on water diversions for agriculture and communities (in some years more than half the Sacramento's water is siphoned off), pollution, dams that have cut off salmon from their upstream spawning grounds and unfavorable ocean conditions that diminished food sources in the Pacific.

The near shutdown of the Northwestern harvest is bad news for the region's economy but also for seafood lovers nationwide. Wild-caught Pacific chinook—considered the filet mignon of salmon due to its rich flesh loaded with heart-healthy fats—will be in short supply this summer.

"The connoisseur is going to have to pay for this premium product," says wholesaler Edward Taylor of New York City's Down East Seafood, which sells to high-end restaurants. Prices in fish markets could top $30 a pound, he says. "By the time you fly it here, you could be talking about a $40 piece of fish once you plate it in a restaurant."

The price of wild-caught salmon has risen for five years because of growing demand, as well as diminishing supply. Consumers can look forward to the arrival of Alaskan chinook (also sold as king salmon) in markets this summer. Meanwhile, watch out for farm-raised salmon being passed off as wild this spring. "Make sure to ask if it's wild-caught," says fishmonger Michael Lucas of North Coast Fisheries in Santa Rosa, Calif.

For foodies, wild-caught is to farmed fish what free-range grass-fed beef is to feedlot cattle: a product superior in taste and environmental footprint. Even so, most of the salmon Americans eat (more than a pound per capita annually) is farm-raised. Wild salmon prices tanked when a boom in farm-raised salmon a decade ago flooded the market with cheap fish. Since then, marketing groups have worked hard to educate consumers about wild salmon. The shutdown of California's chinook fishery will be a big setback, says David Goldenberg of the California Salmon Council.

Sheila Bowman of Seafood Watch, an environmental advocacy group, says consumers can seek out cheaper and more abundant species of wild-caught salmon such as sockeye, pink and chum, which have been canned or ground for salmon burger in years past. They're now finding their way onto more restaurant menus. "Don't pay higher prices for chinook," Bowman says. "Stretch your palate."

More than 90 percent of the continent's wild salmon is harvested off Alaska, where boats caught 137 million salmon last year. Of that number, however, just half a million were prized chinook. Pink salmon, the smallest of the five species of Pacific salmon, constitute the largest portion of the catch—with about 66 million pinks expected to be harvested this year. Sockeye is next, with an expected catch this year of 47 million fish. Alaska's salmon stocks have remained relatively high because its rivers have avoided the environmental destruction of the major salmon rivers in the Northwest—the Sacramento, Columbia and Klamath. "Alaska's salmon fishery is managed for sustainability," says Laura Fleming, spokeswoman for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

That's no consolation for the thousands of fishermen, charter-boat captains, bait-and-tackle-shop owners and others who rely on salmon for their jobs in California, where the economic hit is expected to be $255 million. California and Oregon have asked for federal disaster relief. Tourists who charter salmon fishing boats off the northern California coast are also out of luck this year.

Dawson would normally be busy this month shipping California chinook, which in some years constitutes a third of his business. But this year he has nothing to send: "My buyers all have a tear in their eye." Another problem is rising fuel costs. Dawson is currently shipping a limited amount of Alaska salmon, and getting hit with a new fuel surcharge every week.

Dawson says the crash of California's prized chinook salmon seemed impossible when he was growing up on California's American River, where he witnessed large migrations of spawning salmon. During the 1970s he would see 350 salmon boats heading out of port, but "now there aren't that many boats in the entire California coastal fleet," he says. Everyone is praying that "California kings" (so named because their taste, size and commercial value made them one of the Pacific's most prized commodities) will bounce back. Until then, Dawson says, "this fish is going to be missed by a lot of people."