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Wild Salmon Returns to Waters, Dinner Plates

Salmon lovers, get ready for a bait-and-switch.

Biologists predict that about 820,000 chinook salmon will return to the Sacramento River to spawn this year. But don't get your hopes up - scientists say the boom might not last. 

At Pier 45, the scent of fish gurry lingers in the air, and silver scales sparkle on the docks—both signs of the welcome return of chinook salmon, just a few years after the fish disappeared from dinner plates and was declared an endangered species. Last year, nearly 115,000 salmon swam up the Sacramento River; this year, close to 820,000 are expected.

Fishermen are ecstatic: “We’re making a living for the first time in a while,” says Larry Collins, who explains that he and his fellow commercial anglers barely survived ’08 and ’09. Cooks are busy in the kitchen: “These fish are so fresh and delicious,” gushes Prospect chef Pam Mazzola, whose summer menu features local wild chinook with nasturtium pesto. “And the cool thing is that the flavor varies throughout the season, so you can taste the evolution,” says Delfina’s Craig Stoll. “It starts out a bit lean, but by the end, it’s intense, fatty, and delicious.”

Enjoy it while you can, though, since most experts say the boom may not last. That’s because fish that come from hatcheries—which the vast majority of our salmon does— are much more vulnerable to variations in ocean conditions than their naturally reproduced counterparts are. (In hatcheries, the fish are artificially bred and then released back into the wild, but the breeding eventually makes them less genetically diverse and therefore more fragile.) Scientists believe that unusually warm water between 2004 and 2006 killed much of the zooplankton that young salmon eat, so by the time they would have reached maturity four to five years later, the population had been decimated.

Since then, ocean conditions have rebounded—but there’s no telling when some new disruption could occur. Ultimately, restoring the river habitat so we can rely less on hatcheries is the best way to ensure a steady supply of wild salmon. But until that happens, you’d do well to cultivate a taste for sardines, the new sustainable “it” fish caught right in the Bay Area.

--Maria Finn, with the Food & Environment Reporting Network