If Salmon Could Talk, Here’s What It Would Tell You
For this big fish, there's no place like home.
Google “salmon crossing the road” and you’ll find dozens of videos of me and my pals skittering across wet streets and highways like windup toys on a mission. Cars slow and stop to let us cross, water spraying from our flicking tails as we navigate this unnatural landscape and flop back into the river on the other side.
The videos capture me after I’ve been away at sea for up to five years, traversing thousands of miles while eating the pink-orange krill that give my flesh its trademark rosy color. To guide me on this trek, I use my uniquely astute inner GPS (which taps into the earth’s magnetic fields) to get me closer to my birthplace. Then I begin to sniff out the specific river where I was hatched. I head home to reproduce and, alas, usually to die—possibly after crossing a road or two.
When your local fishmonger or waiter distinguishes me as “wild,” you should know that it is a loose category indeed. The eight living species of me—seven in the Pacific—blur boundaries enough that an Atlantic salmon is actually more closely related to a trout from the Northeast than to a salmon from the Pacific, while Pacific salmon are more closely tied to West Coast rainbow trout than to Atlantic salmon.
More to the point, I am so exquisitely adjusted to the very river I was born in that my size, my shape, and maybe even how I taste are specific to—and determined by—that locale. If I’m born far up the wild Yukon River, for instance, I will grow much larger and fatter than a salmon born in a small-time stream a mile away. After all, I will need enough strength and fat to swim home against the Yukon’s mighty current and dig a nest for eggs in its rocky bottom. And fishermen know this, preferring to catch me precisely at the Yukon’s mouth, when my fat stores—those silky, rich omega-3s that make me delicious for eating and good for the heart—are in peak condition for a long swim upstream.
I’ve been a North American staple forever, in large part because of these unusual spawning habits. I’m the size of an ocean-grown fish, yet my return to local rivers has allowed fishermen of every epoch to catch me without bothering to head out to sea the way they have to for cod and tuna. Such accessibility has backfired against me: While my Atlantic brethren were once native to almost every coastal river northeast of the Hudson, they are now found in just eight lonely rivers in Maine, and thus protected. Word to the wise: If you see “wild Atlantic salmon” on a menu, you’re getting illegal fish—or false information.
Even as they’ve become endangered in the wild, Atlantic salmon have thrived in open-ocean net pens, however, giving me a leg—or is it a fin?—up in the fish-farming business. Tuna and cod, in contrast, have been successfully farmed only recently and with difficulty. As a result, I’ve become the second-most-popular seafood in the United States (after shrimp), with 70 percent of the salmon Americans eat coming from the farms that line many a sheltered coast.
That easy, relatively inexpensive abundance is a blessing for diners and cooks. My fattiness makes me forgivingly moist even if you overcook me—hence my ubiquity at weddings, galas, and your neighbor’s dinner party. (Nonetheless, be gentle with heat when poaching me, or use my skin as a buffer between the heat and my flesh when pan searing me, for a more delicious result.) Few fish lend themselves to such a variety of preparations: I can be eaten pickled, smoked, roasted, poached, grilled, or pan seared, and, of course, I’m excellent raw.
On that last point, a doozy of a fish story: The Japanese considered eating raw salmon to be disgusting and unheard of until the 1990s. That’s when enterprising Norwegians, scheming to find a way to sell their surplus of farmed salmon, persuaded Japanese consumers to incorporate my raw flesh into their sushi-eating customs. That’s right: Your salmon-avocado roll is in fact the product of a genius marketing campaign out of Scandinavia.
Developments like this have done wonders for my popularity, but with unintended consequences. Some farmers around the world looking to cut corners give me too many antibiotics and feed that tends to leave me with environmental toxins such as dioxin and PCBs. Look for the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) check mark on packaging to make sure you’re buying from an organization committed to farming me in a way that’s healthier for you and the environment.
There’s another looming risk I should mention. It’s to other fish. In 2017, about 300,000 Atlantic salmon escaped their pen in Washington State’s Puget Sound. This caused concern that my East Coast version might overtake my West Coast version, endangering my already fragile oceangoing population. When in 2018 a fisherman caught a live Atlantic salmon in Washington’s Skagit River with a belly full of fish bones, the worry increased: Was my domesticated breed surviving out in nature and threatening me in the wild?
The incident led to Washington’s decision to phase out Atlantic salmon farming by 2025. That’s an important measure in my book. I’d like to stay wild, and take a joyride on the open road, for as long as I can. Find some ways to eat me, and other fish, with these delicious fish recipes for busy weeknights.
Broiled Salmon with a Yogurt-Dill Sauce
Dan Roberts/TOH for Reader's Digest
In a small bowl, stir together 1 minced medium clove garlic, 2 tablespoons minced shallot, 1 tablespoon minced fresh dill, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, and 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice. Let stand 5 minutes. Stir in ¾ cup plain yogurt (preferably full-fat) and 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil. Season with salt and ground black pepper. Set sauce aside or refrigerate up to 1 day. Preheat broiler and set oven rack about 8 inches below broiler element. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. Season four 6-ounce boneless, skinless center-cut salmon fillets with salt and pepper. Broil salmon until browned and the center registers 115°F (medium-rare) to 125°F (medium), about 5 minutes. Serve salmon, passing sauce at the table.
In consultation with: Megan McPhee, associate professor, College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences; The book King of Fish, by David Montgomery