While salmon is an age-old favourite among Australians, Libby Travers implores us to take a newer, more sustainable approach to our salmon choices this year.
I’m going to start with something a little shocking – Australian salmon is not actually the pink-fleshed fish you will find in supermarkets and on sushi trains. Perhaps even more shocking, Australian salmon is not actually a salmon at all. Instead, it’s related to the Australian herring (which is, believe it or not, another red herring – known as tommy ruff, it is not a herring either).
This small family of fish, so-named by European settlers perhaps pining for familiar fish from the waters of the northern hemisphere, makes up the Arripis family, consisting of only four species, all native to Australian and New Zealand waters.
Unfortunately, unlike their blushing counterpart, Australian salmon have not been particularly popular with the Australian consumer and historically much of the catch has been used for pet food and bait (for example, in the western Rock Lobster fishery). This is a shame, as being abundantly available in both the southern eastern and western waters of Oz, they are considered to be sustainable in all their catch areas.
Lyndey Milan's BBQ salmon skewers with crunchy slaw; Roast salmon with salsa verde, kipflers and asparagus
This is not the case with their namesake. The harrowing tales of Atlantic salmon being farmed in the (previously) pristine waters surrounding Tasmania have been in the news of late. The clue is in the word Atlantic. Those who know their geography, will know that the Atlantic Ocean is far, far away.
In Richard Flanagan’s book Toxic, he doesn’t simply name Atlantic salmon as the battery hen of the sea (although their gigantic floating feedlots would make that comparison very apt), instead “these majestic animals are perhaps better described as the battery eagle or the battery lion of the sea.” That alone is enough to give pause, but Flanagan’s story is much more complex than that.
The beneficiary of an impressive marketing campaign in the 1970s and 80s, this wild creature, with its high natural levels of Omega 3, burst onto our culinary scene. It was a time when much of the fresh produce found elsewhere around the world was still unavailable on our shores. Fish farming was new technology (as indeed was much factory farming) and the ramifications largely unknown. Those ramifications, as described in Flanagan’s book, are wider reaching than just the impact on these noble animals.
Lyndey Milan's Poached salmon, pea and potato salad; Salmon tartare with sesame wafers
And this is where things get seriously shocking. In order to maintain their populations in the vertical prisons that can be up to 20m in depth (“more than a million living fish packed into swirling vortexes of filth”), they are fed a combination of wild fish (the ratio of wild fish required is greater than salmon flesh produced, not to mention the wasteful by-catch), supplemented with soy products (many of the problems with deforestation around the globe are caused by an insatiable appetite for soy feed for industrially produced animals), plus antibiotics to maintain herd health (all the while leaching much of the excess – estimated to be up to 75 percent of the antibiotics they are given – via excrement into surrounding waters), and to rub salt into the many wounds, the fish are finally dyed, to give them the ‘palatable’ pink colour caused in nature by their diet of small shellfish.
If we are what we eat, we are also what we eat, eats. The very reason we turned to salmon in the first place no longer exists – they are but a shadow of their wild, majestic selves. Atlantic salmon from Australia is a hard no from me.
Select and store
If it must be fresh salmon, the best option is the King (or Chinook) Salmon produced in New Zealand. While it, too, is farmed, it is held accountable to different regulations. There are no antibiotics, growth hormones or vaccines allowed in New Zealand fish farms (which begs the question why they are in our fisheries). Across the many certifications that exist, the King Salmon of New Zealand is found on the green list, and is in fact considered best in class (for farmed fish) acround the globe.
We can only hope for this focus for our industry in the years to come. It is reasonable to think, following Flanagan’s explosive revelations and the preceding Four Corners story, these producers will start cleaning up their act. And in the meantime, there’s always Australian ‘salmon’!
Swimming in the wild. Let’s leave Atlantic salmon alone, leave the businesses to rectify their behaviour, and save salmon consumption for the moments you can buy the good stuff from NZ or Canada or Norway (food miles aside – agh, environmental considerations are so complicated!). Perhaps, better still, for when you’re on holidays in one of those wonderful places. As Champagne can only be produced in France, perhaps we should leave Atlantic salmon to the Atlantic. Not convinced? Read the book.