It’s been a good news and bad news scenario for BC salmon this summer. Sockeye returns to our rivers may be the highest in years, but certain runs may be threatened by the Polley Lake mine tailings spill and dangerously low water levels here on Vancouver Island in the Cowichan River. But so far the fish are there for the eating, so here’s an update on what kind of salmon we can expect over the next few weeks and how to use them.
This morning I talked with Brian Riddell, the president and CEO of the Pacific Salmon Foundation specifically about the Cowichan River. He says it’s not unusual for East Coast Vancouver Island rivers to suffer from low water levels in the summer, but this drought for the Cowichan is more severe than ever. This is a river that supports good returns of Chinook, coho and chum with some pink and steelhead trout as well.
The Foundation is not sounding the alarm bell just yet. Riddell says returning salmon can hold up in Cowichan Bay, sometimes for at least a month, waiting for better water levels, and many of the returning salmon come a little later in the summer. Earlier runs may suffer, and if you get that a couple of years in a row than that can mean drastically reduced returns in the future. Riddell believes that something has to be done now to protect the water flows in the long term. The combination of drought, which may become a yearly occurrence, municipal and industrial use contributes to the reduced summertime flows. Riddell says there is a plan, but it just hasn’t been implemented yet, and it’s unfortunate that an emergency situation like this summer’s drought may be needed to get that plan moving again.
In the meantime, salmon from other runs in BC are returning and being caught in good numbers. I also spoke with Michael Renwick, executive director of the BC Salmon Marketing Council. Large numbers of sockeye salmon have been passing through counting stations and openings have started. There have also been good catches of pink, spring, and some coho. One of the major fish processors he chatted with recently told him that the consumer market for fresh, wild salmon has been very strong, they’ve sold all their catch into that market here and across North America, instead of having to freeze some of that fresh fish.
So now is the time to get out there and buy it! You will notice a wide variation in pricing depending on which kind of salmon you want to get and who you want to buy it from. If those sockeye returns head into record territory, which we will find out about in a few weeks, I would say prices would have to drop since there will be so much of it available. But I picked up a whole sockeye this week for about 6 dollars a pound and a couple of pinks for about half that amount.
If you have any knife skills at all I recommend you buy whole fish and cut it into fillets or steaks for the barbecue, and if you think a whole fish is too much you can always cut it up and freeze it, or cook it all and use it to make salmon cakes or salads. If you are purchasing whole fish in larger supermarkets the heads are likely cut off, so you can’t look at the eyes…bright, clear eyes being a sign of freshness. So, no head? The fish is likely in a bag, or foam tray with shrink wrap. Pick it up and smell it. If it smells fishy, especially through the plastic, give it a pass. Then poke the flesh with your finger. If it bounces back from your poke, you’ve got a fresh one. If a dent stays in, it’s not so fresh. Poke another one. I bought a whole sockeye and a whole pink salmon (pink is a real bargain) and gave them two different treatments, one grilled, one smoked. Here are some pink salmon recipes from the Pacific Salmon Foundation, and the recipe page from the BC Salmon Marketing Council.
This is one of my all-time favourite recipes for salmon, which I found in a Canadian Homemakers magazine years and years ago. Don’t be put off by the marinade…it looks and smells like tar! But once you cook it, the flavour is divine.
Wild West Salmon
1 Whole salmon, up to 5 pounds
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 Cup rye whiskey
1 Tablespoon molasses
1/2 Cup vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
1 Tablespoon each Salt And Freshly Ground Pepper
2 Garlic Cloves — minced
Combine marinade ingredients, mix well and pour into large, flat dish. Remove head, tail and fins from salmon. Run a sharp knife down backbone until salmon opens flat. Place flesh side down in the marinade and refrigerate overnight or for at least a few hours. When ready to grill, remove salmon from marinade and place skin side down on oiled grill. Barbecue until flesh is just opaque and flakes easily, 20-30 minutes or less, depending on the size of the salmon. The backbone and side bones should lift right out of the flesh. I usually serve this with wild rice, or a combination of wild rice and brown rice, and a side vegetable dish. Enjoy!
The second treatment is a very simple recipe from Ron Shewchuk’s great cookbook, Barbecue Secrets Deluxe. Rub the fillet with sesame oil, then sprinkle on salt, pepper and hot pepper flakes to taste, then sprinkle with a light coating of brown sugar, and drizzle with lemon juice.
The salmon went on my Traeger Lil’ Tex pellet smoker for about an hour and a half or two hours at 225F, and came out moist and flavourful. I drizzled some more lemon juice on top when serving.