The what, where, when, and how of “Why Vital Choice?”
by Randy Hartnell

One topic I've not yet addressed in our newsletter is an important one: Why should someone seeking superior wild salmon choose Vital Choice? After all, the health and environmental advantages of choosing wild versus farmed salmon—better nutrition and culinary quality, protection of ocean ecosystems and salmon species—would seem to apply to all wild salmon.

But, as any experienced Alaskan fisherman can tell you, the quality of wild salmon varies widely and depends on several factors. I use the knowledge gained through commercial salmon fishing to select the best possible fish for you, our customer.

Here's a quick summary of four variables that affect the quality of wild salmon:
  1. Species
  2. Regional Origin
  3. Harvest Timing
  4. Handling
Superior species
There are five distinct species of Pacific salmon, each with its own appearance, flavor, texture and nutritional profile. When it comes to salmon, oil content is a key determinant of flavor and nutritional value.

We select Sockeye, King and Silver salmon because they generally offer the best oil content. And, like all wild salmon, these species' oil contains EPA and DHA: the omega-3 fatty acids proven to promote healthy hearts, brains, and joints. (You may be interested to know that, in addition to the well known omega-3s mentioned above, recent laboratory analysis revealed that Alaskan sockeye contain 34 other beneficial fatty acids!)

The other two Pacific salmon species, Pink and Chum, also have their niche in the marketplace. Most pinks are canned, while many chums (also marketed as "Arctic Keta" or "Silver Brite") are smoked. Compared with wild Pacific Sockeye, King, or Silver salmon, neither can compete consistently for culinary quality.

We also favor Sockeye, King and Silver for their rich red color, which they get from high levels of healthful carotenoids—primarily astaxanthin, which is one of the most potent and beneficial antioxidants known—up to 500 times or more powerful than vitamin E!

Finally, among commercial species, all wild Pacific salmon tend to be very low in mercury. World and U.S. health agencies alike consider Pacific wild salmon very safe to eat, even on a daily basis (Our sashimi grade tuna is also unusually low in mercury, for reasons I'll explain in a future issue).

Location, location, location
Alaskan salmon are like wine—harvested in diverse areas, each possessing unique regional characteristics that influence flavor, texture, and nutrient content.

Because I spent 20 years fishing Alaskan waters—and stay in close contact with my commercial-fishing colleagues—I know just where and when the finest specimens of each species of salmon can be caught.

For example, fish migrating to large rivers usually offer higher oil content—with its attendant flavor and health benefits—than salmon destined for smaller rivers. Salmon have evolved over thousands of years to be optimally suited to their particular migration pattern. Since they cease eating when they enter fresh water, they require sufficient energy reserves—fat to fuel their journey. Generally speaking, the longer the fresh-water segment of their odyssey, the more of these healthful fats they'll store.

Harvest Timing
Timing is another key quality factor. As salmon return to coastal waters seeking fresh water spawning grounds and stop eating, they begin to live off of their fat reserves. This results in loss of oil content and a fading of skin and flesh color. Salmon harvested in this relatively deteriorated state will ultimately be sold to less discriminating buyers, or to those focusing more upon price than quality. These fish can be identified by their dull or dark skin, which ideally should be a bright, shiny silver color.

Last winter I was visiting a Bread & Circus (Whole Foods Market) store in Massachusetts and, as always, took a stroll through the seafood section. In the freezer case I saw wild Alaskan salmon steaks exhibiting the dark skin indicative of late-run salmon. I wondered how many well meaning B&C customers would look beyond the ‘Alaska wild' brand to notice the dark skin, and how many among those who purchased the substandard fish would be disappointed with their experience and go back to eating farmed salmon.

We are careful to select only those salmon that are caught at their peak condition, exhibiting bright scales, abundant healthful fats and carotenoid-rich, deep-red flesh.

Handle with care: slower-paced processing
The rapid rise of salmon farming has driven many fishermen out of business, with corresponding negative impact on the salmon processing industry (For example, North Pacific Seafoods in Cordova, Alaska shut down recently when Costco and Sam's Clubs cancelled their contract with the processor and replaced their canned Pink Alaskan salmon line with farmed Chilean products).

Accordingly, when the wild harvest is at its peak, the few remaining Alaskan processors must handle huge volumes of fish very quickly. (Some 34 million salmon are projected to be caught in Bristol Bay alone this year!) This temporary overabundance relative to processing capacity will likely pose a big challenge to those fishers and processors who've survived the farmed salmon fall-out, as they will strain to accommodate nature's bounty in a manner that preserves its quality.

To ensure that we get the highest quality product, we target salmon processed on the "shoulders" of the season, when harvest rates are slow and facilities aren't overburdened. We also seek out fish harvested by people and methods known for producing consistently superior products.

Wild salmon are extremely delicate and must be handled with care every step of the way if they are to retain their inherent quality. Some fishermen appreciate this and treat their fish accordingly, but unfortunately many do not or, in the case of the more fast-paced prolific fisheries, simply don't have the time to. Many of these fish will end up being canned. None, however, will ever carry a Vital Choice label.

These factors, as well as many others, create a minefield for the uninformed wild salmon consumer. When you choose Vital Choice salmon you are putting my experience, knowledge, and commitment to work for you. I view myself as your salmon advocate and hope you will too!