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Top Species: Wild salmon

Uniqueness translates to popularity in the marketplace

Joanne Friedrick
April 05, 2011

Like fine wines, microbrewed beer and artisanal cheese, wild salmon has become a niche product in its own right, with different species and harvest locations giving the fish a unique appearance, taste and selling point with consumers.

On the fresh sheet at Elliott’s Oyster House in Seattle, Executive Chef Robert Spaulding offers a wide variety of king, coho and sockeye salmon from the Pacific Northwest when fresh salmon is in season. Included in his offerings may be fish from the Copper and Columbia rivers in Alaska and the Fraser River in British Columbia. With keta, also known as chum, Spaulding limits himself to those fish from the Yukon River. He also offers Yukon River and Lopez Island sockeye and troll-caught kings, including ivory kings, which are rare, white-fleshed versions of the king salmon.

Spaulding is particular because his clientele is too. “Probably 20 percent to 25 percent of sales are from salmon,” he says, which translates to sales of more than $2 million a year.

“Our customers are always keen on fresh, but sometimes, depending on the time of year, we have to educate them about the quality of frozen,” he explains.

Nearly 90 percent of the restaurant’s salmon comes from Alaska, says Spaulding, who works directly with the fishermen, when possible, as well as with distributors. In his efforts to get as close to the catch as possible, Spaulding has accompanied fishermen working the Yukon River and has pointed out the size and characteristics of the fish he wants. He’s also been known to drop in on his distributors to see how the fish is handled as well as to make selections in person.

Spaulding is very specific about his likes and dislikes. “I like to choose fish from long, cold rivers,” preferably line-caught fish, he says. Kings should be 18 pounds or more; coho, 9 pounds and up; and sockeye, at least 4 pounds.

On the menu, the salmon is offered alder-planked with a house seasoning rub, simply grilled with olive oil or flash-seared with Cajun-style spices. “I keep it as simple as possible because many guests have ties to the seafood industry, so it behooves us to present it in a way that they can appreciate.”

Customers ask for fresh, and that is Spaulding’s preference as well, although he does menu frozen, but it needs to be quick-frozen. Elliott’s has committed to sourcing all of its fish from sustainable fisheries that meet the requirements of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Marine Stewardship Council.

Although he understands the business decisions behind farmed salmon, it isn’t a product Spaulding wants to use at Elliott’s. Salmon, he says, “is a totem of Northwest culture. When people make a trip here, or even if they are locals, they look to eat salmon. It’s part of that Northwest experience.” His customers also select wild salmon for its health benefits, the sustainability aspect and because it lends itself to “appealing preparations.”

With salmon prices on Elliott’s menu ranging from the mid-$20s to the high $30s, Spaulding says prices have crept up in the past four years, which is as long as he has been at Elliott’s. “I’ve noticed increases, particularly with kings,” he says, “but it really depends on the size of the runs. Last season there were some lower, depressed prices because of large catches.” Overall, he says, the fisheries are pretty well managed and prices aren’t out of line.

The value-added proposition 

Some wild salmon, of course, finds its way into the retail market as value-added entrées. Morey’s Seafood International in Golden Valley, Minn., uses keta in its frozen program, says President Lynn Girouard, because it takes marinades well “and it allows us to deliver something with a milder taste than sockeye.”

In deciding on recipes for its frozen fillets, Girouard looks to the marketplace, to what the chefs in New York are creating and to international flavors. “The average American has a more traditional palate,” she says, so even if the trend is toward an extreme flavor, “we may ‘Americanize’ it.” 

Working with seafood has its challenges, says Girouard, especially because each species has its own flavor and texture. What works for salmon, like the garlic cracked pepper recipe, may not translate to tilapia or cod. Salmon is among the most popular products offered by Morey’s, she says, which coincides with its popularity in foodservice and retail.

Orca Bay Seafoods also works with keta, as well as sockeye, for its SteamWell microwavable entrées, says John Steinmetz, VP-business development for the Renton, Wash.-based company. Orca Bay has three wild salmon-based products on the market and a couple more in R&D, he says. 

“Salmon is certainly very prominent in our offerings for both value-added and non-value-added,” he says. “There is a demand for a wild and sustainable product,” he says, but also one that is easy to use. 

Orca Bay is targeting some of those customers through its recent partnership with Amazon Fresh, a food and household goods home-delivery system. Steinmetz says while the concentration is on the Seattle area, there is the possibility of taking distribution into other areas. “It certainly is a way to get Orca Bay out to customers who can’t ordinarily get it,” he says. 

Alaska stays strong; California comes back 

In the numbers game, Alaska is the leader in wild salmon, producing 90 percent of the domestic supply and more than 35 percent of the global wild supply, says Tyson Fick, communications manager for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Alaska product represents approximately 12 percent of the global supply of both wild and farmed salmon. 

In 2009, Alaska catches yielded 671.2 million pounds of chinook/king, keta/chum, coho, pink and sockeye salmon. Pink was at the top, with more than 276 million pounds, followed closely by sockeye at 256 million. 

Final numbers for the 2010 season weren’t yet available, Fick says, but preliminary figures showed a rebound in price and volume, with sales volume in the $500 million range. The outlook for this year, he says, “is that we expect things to stay strong. Most people are banking on a good year.”

California, which hasn’t had a full salmon season in several years, is looking to rebound this year, says David Goldenberg, CEO of the California Salmon Council based in Folsom, Calif. The California Department of Fish and Game estimated 729,000 salmon were in coastal waters, up from last year’s 245,000 fish. 

In 2010, fishermen had an eight-day season, but the first four were hampered by bad weather, says Goldenberg. The 2008 and 2009 seasons were canceled altogether.

“[2011] will be a similar opportunity to 2007,” he says. “Hopefully things are on the mend.”

What is landed in California, he says, typically stays in the state, serving the large cities, although some could go to Nevada. Because of the successive poor years, Goldenberg says the supporting industries need to start up again along with the fishing boats.

“I think the fishermen are there,” he says, “but we need to get all the infrastructure in place. They’ve been beaten back over the past number of years.”

Up in remote western Alaska, where catches have also been hampered by poor returns, last year’s season began well, says Ruth Carter, sales manager at Kwik’Pak Fisheries in Seattle and the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association. However, concerns about the number of fish reaching Canada resulted in an earlier-than-expected shutdown for the Yukon king season.

About 1.5 million pounds of fish were harvested from the Yukon region last year, she says, but the breakeven point is around 3 million pounds. Carter is encouraged that grocery stores are interested in buying frozen salmon as part of a program that was started last year. 

“We hope for a little more product this year,” says Carter, who notes that the Yukon kings are desirable because they are higher in omega-3 fatty acids than some of the other wild salmon on the market.

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine  

Find other SeaFood Business articles with wild salmon here.

April 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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