An interview with Andrew Weil, M.D., on the boat in Alaska
by Randy Hartnell
Andrew Weil, M.D. was among the passengers on our recent tour of the Inland Passage in southeast Alaska (see “Vital Choice Explores," in this issue). Dr. Weil, a noted authority on nutrition and complementary medicine, is the author of three NYT bestselling books. He also founded and directs the Program for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona.
Dr. Weil (seated below me at right) shared his impressions of the place and local salmon fishery during a break in the onboard action.
I had four questions for Dr. Weil, which he graciously agreed to answer for our readers.
What were your general impressions of the wild salmon fishery in Alaska?
The first thing I notice is the sheer abundance of salmon, and the beautiful, pristine environment. I’ve traveled all around the world, and while no place on the planet is entirely free of industrial pollutants today, few are as clean as southeast Alaska. We saw thick schools of migrating salmon at the mouths of streams, waiting to make their way back to their spawning ground, and fishing boat nets bursting with Pink salmon.
I know that both the U.S. government and the Marine Stewardship Council consider the wild Alaskan salmon fishery fully sustainable. This is no surprise, since it was obvious to me that the people involved see the value of preserving the resource for the future, and that the salmon fishery is very well managed.
I live part-time near the coast of British Columbia, where the provincial government is very lax on enforcing environmental laws and ensuring sustainability. Alaska is sort of a last frontier, and I hope that the conservation consciousness persists.
Which among the kinds of salmon we tasted did you most enjoy? [Note to readers: Chef John Pisto arranged a salmon tasting for the passengers and crew on the Alaska Adventurer, featuring pink, chum, coho (silver), and sockeye.]
I think it’s valuable to become informed about different kinds of salmon and how to prepare them. My favorites are king (chinook) and sockeye, but silver (coho) is great if it’s well-prepared. And after tasting them against the other varieties on the boat, I think even pink and chum salmon——which have been seen as sort of the also-rans of the salmon world—have their place at the table.
Of course, a large percentage of salmon ends up being canned, and that’s not a form I’ve previously been especially interested in. While I still prefer fresh-frozen salmon, I found that Vital Choice canned salmon—which is sockeye instead of pink salmon—tastes much better than any canned salmon I’ve tried. I also like that Vital Choice canned albacore tuna is packed in organic extra virgin olive oil, so it offers both monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids, which are among the very healthiest types of fats you can eat.
What did you think of the fish processing plants from which Vital Choice selects fresh-frozen salmon?
It was good to see that the fish are handled so carefully, which keeps them firm and fresh. The fish are hand-filleted very skillfully, and the processing plants also use high tech methods—like the precision machines that remove the little pin bones, and the super-cold flash-freezers—which enable discriminating purveyors like Randy and (partner) Dave to deliver a delicious, healthy, product that people can prepare quickly and easily.
I was glad to see that the plant management was genuinely concerned for worker health and safety, and rotate workers among jobs to help prevent the repetitive strain injuries seen in livestock processing plants.
It was fascinating to see the way salmon roe is processed, with expert Japanese supervisors overseeing every detail. Most of Alaska’s salmon roe is sold into the Japanese sushi market, where it is called ikura. Based on my experience tasting raw roe at the plant and ikura [cured roe] on the boat, Americans are really missing out on a delicious treat that’s high in omega-3s
Omega-3s seem to have become major nutrition stars. Any comments on salmon in this regard?
Of the omega-3 sources, wild Alaskan salmon may well be the best. It’s very high in omega-3s, remarkably free of contaminants, and has a long association with good human nutrition, so it’s the omega-3 source I most frequently advise people to eat.
It’s important to get adequate omega-3s throughout life, starting with pre-natal nutrition and continuing through infancy and early childhood, when it is key to brain development. Later, omega-3s slow overall aging, help preserve mental function, and build the body’s defenses against cardiovascular disease and cancer.
In addition to offering more usable omega-3s than just about any other food, salmon is an especially beautiful fish and tasty food that lends itself to diverse methods of preparation. It was great to see salmon up close in its natural habitat, and watch the entire process, from harvest to packing, unfold right in front of us.
This is just a really glorious place, and it seems natural that the native foods are so amazing. It's been great to experience it all.
Thanks, Dr. Weil for sharing your perceptions with our readers.