Salmon means a lot to me, lots more than I ever dreamed it would. This is why I only eat wild salmon and choose to serve wild salmon at all of my restaurants.
I was 18 when I moved to Seattle. I didn't know much about anything, but when I got here the wild seafood was an unbelievable resource. I didn't know much about it. And then over the years as I served it, I learned how it was caught, how it was managed, and learned about all the species and how things like the length that salmon travels affect its flavor and texture.
I just became fascinated with the story of salmon, and what it meant in the economy and image of the Pacific Northwest—not only on our dinner tables but to the fisherman and the indigenous people, and to the lore of our area and all of the above. Think about salmon in the same way you think of a jazz band to the people of New Orleans or the Cubs to the city of Chicago. It's part of our identity. It's part of who we are. It's a natural resource and we are very proud of it.
Still, as important as it is, Washington state, as with most of Oregon, California, and British Columbia, have not treated it so well over the years. Hence we don't have much of a fishery left, if at all. There's very little commercial salmon in the lower 48. This is why I have created an "eat the wild to save the wild" approach to eating salmon. I read a lot about fish farming and I researched that. But in my opinion, that's not good for anything because it's destroying the other fisheries out there. I stopped serving farmed salmon at any of my restaurants 15 years ago. The fish can't speak for themselves so I got myself educated and speak for them.
In order to save the remaining salmon supply, we must eat wild to save wild. By purchasing wild salmon, you support the greatest fishing industry in the US, and the jobs and communities that are sustained by it. Eating the wild to save the wild is just as simple as this.
We're all worried about making sure our farm-to-table is really from farm to table, or that our beef is really grass-fed. What if they would just make the same efforts with fish like salmon?
Of course, you can't just eat wild without any management. Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon is a good example because it's certified sustainable by many fisheries. When you eat wild Alaskan salmon from there, you are recognizing all the indigenous people in the area whose job it is to harvest salmon, and you are also recognizing that they can have salmon for dinner, too. This fishery has been giving us 30 to 50 million fish a year. This is a record-breaking harvest. We work with all sorts of fish companies. Some are big companies like Trident Seafoods, which is probably one of the largest fishing companies in the world. And we also work with small, by-the-boat fisheries, but everyone only works during the season that they're allowed to work in, and they're fully licensed.
Right now, the American salmon scene is disastrous in certain areas. There's just a lot of fraud going on. If you go to any major American city right now, many restaurants will have salmon on the menu, but hardly any will tell you where the salmon is from. And when they do say it, they always just say: "Atlantic Salmon from Scotland" or something like that. They will never simply say "farmed salmon," though that is what it most likely will be. Restaurants are just not honest about it, and the worst part is that they're not making any effort to educate themselves about the situation. We're all worried about making sure our farm-to-table is really from farm to table, or that our beef is really grass-fed. What if they would just make the same efforts with fish like salmon?
Believe me, if it's wild, it's going to cost more money. Restaurants will want to tell the story of that fish.
There's really no reason to use farmed salmon. It shouldn't even be in the marketplace as far as I'm concerned. Because what they're doing when they farm salmon at this point, according to every seafood certification agency out there, is hurting the wild stock.
When buying salmon to cook at home, there's plenty of opportunities to be a responsible consumer of fish. To start, there is the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program that you can pull up on your iPhone, so there's literally no reason not to know whether your local seafood counter is serving sustainable seafood or not. When you're in a restaurant about to order salmon, you can ask: "Where the fish is from? Is it wild or not?" When the server comes back and replies, "Oh yeah, I'm sure it's wild! Our chef would never not serve wild fish" Then respond, "OK, where's it from?" And you know, a lot of the times they'll come back and say, "I was mistaken." Or they'll actually know where that fish was from.
Believe me, if it's wild, it's going to cost more money. They will want to tell the story of that fish. I'm super hopeful for the future of American salmon. The topic is starting to resonate with more people and they are starting to understand the economics around fish. If we don't create the economy, we're not going to save the fish.
As told to Javier Cabral
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Chef Tom Douglas owns 15 restaurants in the Pacific Northwest and can talk about salmon for days. To learn more about his salmon, consider checking out the documentary on salmon that he co-produced, The Breach.