Steve Connolly Seafood Company Answers Your Questions About Salmon

Dean Fearing gets a fishing lesson from Steve Connolly Seafood Company's senior buyer, Robert Chandler.
Dean Fearing gets a fishing lesson from Steve Connolly Seafood Company's senior buyer, Robert Chandler.

This morning I called Willy Warner, the national sales manager and corporate executive chef at Steve Connolly Seafood Company in Boston. Willy spends a lot of time in Dallas working with our local chefs  and educating them on seafood. Armed with a lengthy list of questions about salmon, I started firing away. When we got to the complicated marine biology stuff, Willy handed me off to Robert Chandler, Connolly’s senior buyer and Boston plant manager. Chandler  also has a degree in marine biology. Below is a Q&A with the folks from Connolly. Most of the questions are copied and pasted from reader’s comments and questions. Here goes.

NN: Let’s talk about wild Atlantic salmon. We used a sample in our flavor taste test and two people thought it tasted better than Copper River salmon.

ACS: Well, if you pick a fish for true fat content, Atlantic farm-raised salmon has a high fat content. King salmon should have a gamier taste. But Atlantic salmon is raised all over the world. The key is knowing where and how the fish is raised and knowing the practices used, the waters they are raised in, and the regulations of the country they are raised in. There is a huge crisis now in Chile. They have lost 80% of their salmon to disease.

NN: One reader: “Bay of Fundy farmed salmon is Atlantic salmon, genus Salmon.”

SCS: Correct. No king. Most farm-raised king comes out of New Zealand (for the Japanese market) or British Columbia.

NN: The same reader: “King and Chinook (which are 2 names for exactly the same Pacific fish) are genus Oncorhynchus. Completely different salmon you were tasting.”

SCS: Not on the Copper River salmon.

NN: Ocean-caught vs. River-caught. Which is better?

SCS: It’s not really where it’s caught, it is when it is caught that determines the taste. After the fish are born they go to the ocean for a year or two before they go back to spawn.  The time of the year determines the quality of the fish. In late fall they don’t have the fat content because their clocks haven’t clicked them into a feeding frenzy to spawn.

NN: Why so much hype on Copper River salmon?

SCS: The Copper River is a big river and the hype comes around May 15 when the regulators announce the amount of salmon that can be harvested. Keep in mind, this used to be a great event in the early 80s.  It was the first run of fresh salmon and it was before farmed salmon. It was all wild.

NN: So who decides the amount of the harvest?

SCS: Fishery scientists study population dynamics and they take samplings of fish length, weight, girth, and age (they count the tiny rings on the ear bones). They add environmental factors like natural predations, snow melt, water temperature, and food abundance to come up with a theory on what the population is and determine an allowable catch.

Salmon are easy because they return each year. The Copper River has fishery biologists that sit in towers and count fish. They also use sonar units that count as the fish migrate. The amount of time the river is open is very controlled. Last year the river was open for 12 hours, this year it’s six. This year they open from 6 am to 12 pm on Monday and Thursday. The fish are landed, counted, and taken out and then they let the river lie as it would for three days. Then they open it again until they reach the end when the fish [king and sockeye] loses its luster [about 3 weeks]. Then different salmon like coho, pink, and chum come to spawn.

This year ten sockeye have been caught to every king. For us to get 100 pounds of Copper River king we had buy 1,000 pounds of sockeye. They are distinctive and difference in flavor and color. Sockeye has a robust flavor and a fire engine color that is popular in the Japanese market. Copper River is $10 per pound higher. [wholesale]

NN:  One of our tasters talked about being able to “custom order the color” of salmon. What is the story about farm-raised fish and dying them like shoes?

SCS: I’d love to meet him. We couldn’t get our growers to do it. Farm-raised salmon are not dyed with artificial coloring. They have learned to synthesize natural carotenoids or pigments in the lab (astaxanthin and canthaxanthin) and add it to the food. Wild salmon feed on anchovy, sardine, herring, and shrimp for their color.

NN: One reader writes: “Farmed salmon is “dyed” by the addition of coloring to their feed. Just as factory-farmed cattle, they can be “finished” with a richer, and, in this case, dyed, feed mix. “Anemic pink” is a great description of un-dyed farmed salmon. Pallid would be another.”

SCS:  Improper nomenclature. It is subsidized by using synthetic carotenoids that molecularly mimics that found in nature.

NN: Another comment. “Wild salmon has a naturally richer color because of their diet, including shrimp, which is usually too expensive to add, in quantity, to fish pellet/feed manufacture.”

SCS:  Fair assessment. But they aren’t eating jumbo shrimp it’s a small crustaceans like krill.

NN: From another reader. “I’d also augment your suggestions with the thought that a better taste test would include several different preparations.”

SCS:  Not true. It gives you how the fish cooks and behaves. To get a clear picture of flavor we sear it in a little oil canola and finish it off in the oven until done.

NN: One reader suggested tasting the fish raw.

SCS: You need heat to infuse the oils and fats into the meat. That is the base of the flavor. I could see a raw tasting, but I don’t see how 98.6 on your tongue would really give you what you need to know.

NN: One reader’s thought: “Color, texture, and flavor, not to mention tasters’ preferences, vary with preparation. CR salmon’s supposed richer oil content and firmer raw texture would be indistinguishable in many recipes and inappropriate in others.”

SCS: Fair to say.

NN: From a reader: “From my readings and my own subjective tastings, Copper River, and to an even greater extent, Yukon River (running some 2000 miles clear across the State of Alaska, but not as steeply as Copper River, which is 300 miles long) salmon indeed have more fish oil–why?”

SCS:  It could have to do with the amount of what they need to get up river. The salmon could be hitting the herring at their prime. It’s not a biological thing. It all depends on what they feed on. They eat and assimilate the protein like we do. If we eat lean, we’ll be lean. If we eat at McDonald’s, our liver will be pate. If you ignore the food source and say area or length of river, it is not completely accurate.

NN: A comment: “I guess that makes Yukon salmon the Superman of salmon, because the river is even longer than the Copper.”

SCS:  Absolutely. There are some people who argue that the Yukon salmon has higher fat. But that varies on every river and every year depending on the food the fish have available to those populations. It can and does vary from year to year.

NN: A reader says: “An inordinately large portion of that supply, especially the best king, goes to Japan, where people will pay multiples of the $40/lb you saw at TJ’s, for superior fish. I can show you photos from my travels of salmon that had marbling similar to what you’d see in a beef steak of “select” or lower “choice” USDA grades. These are fish that even national (US) supplier seldom sees, instead going straight to exporters who will pay a considerably higher price.”

SCS:  Yes and no. I’d be hard pressed to say that the box [of Copper River salmon] we got in this morning would be nicer in Japan. It’s all about who you deal with and trust. The U.S. is not a dumping ground for fish.

NN: So how do these fish know how to find their way back to their original location to spawn?

SCS: The fish are imprinted at young age. It happens right after birth. The organic compounds of the water are imprinted on their olfactory senses and they are then capable of identifying the breakdown of the water. Salmon are able to read their mental maps based on tracing these organic compounds to find the tributaries.

NN: From a reader: “The reddest (if that is a word) salmon is Alaskan wild sockeye; in Alaska they are called “reds”.”

SCS: Correct.  They have the ability to metabolize a higher range of carotenoids that translate into brighter color.

NN: A reader says: “The fact that the CR salmon you had at TJ’s and D’s tasting wasn’t too red supports the notion that it was indeed of the King variety.”

SCS:  Kings can also get duller and drier as they get closer to their spawning.

NN: A reader writes: “Some of the best tasting ocean caught salmon, where “troll-caught” is less environmentally damaging than gillnet- or purse seine-caught fish (because troll-caught results in almost no by-catch and doesn’t “dredge” the ocean bottom), come from Cook Inlet, SW of Anchorage, and from Bristol Bay (which is also where great sockeye comes from).”

SCS: Completely correct.

NN: Let’s end on completely correct. Have a nice weekend.

35 comments on “Steve Connolly Seafood Company Answers Your Questions About Salmon

  1. The gentlemen clearly did NOT understand the cut & paste (and mistypes) as you have presented it.

    Nor did you, as piece below was part of the preceeding question, which was:
    NN: One reader: “Bay of Fundy farmed salmon is Atlantic salmon, genus Salmon.”

    SCS: Correct. No king. Most farm-raised king comes out of New Zealand (for the Japanese market) or British Columbia.

    Then, we get this, where you turned part of the same series of original points into a separate line item instead:

    NN: The same reader: “King and Chinook (which are 2 names for exactly the same Pacific fish) are genus Oncorhynchus. Completely different salmon you were tasting.”

    SCS: Not on the Copper River salmon.

    The “Completely different salmon you were tasting.” applied to the fact that you WERE tasting 2 different salmons: Pacific and Atlantic. Not that chinook and king were different — after all, I had just finished ssying they were NOT. Said point was made because in your post, you boasted incorrectly that all the salmon were Chinook or King.

    Finally, it’s not genus “salmon” as you mistyped above… the genus is “salmo” as I correctly posted in the original thread.

    Sigh……

  2. for the record, willie is more than the national sales manager and corporate executive chef at Steve Connolly Seafood Company in Boston…he is also a dear friend of TJ’s and one of the nicest guys you will EVER meet in the industry.

    TJ’s just got a gorgeous steve connally shipment today: 30 maine lobsters, a 6lb lobster (special order for a customer)scallops in the shell (special order for a customer), domestic caviar and atlantic salmon from the bay of fundy.

  3. “Said point was made because in your post, you boasted incorrectly that all the salmon were Chinook or King.”

    i’m not sure where this point came from (i’ve seen it on the other board where this topic is being discussed) but no one is saying that all salmon are chinook or king?

    salmon species:

    King (Chinook)

    Sockeye (Blueback)

    Coho (Silver)

    Keta (Chum, Silver Brite)

    Pink (Humpie)

    Atlantic (commercial Atlantics are farm raised)

  4. Keep this up and D is going to have to go sit at the nerd table in the cafeteria.

  5. Slighty confused here…SCS: I’d love to meet him. We couldn’t get our growers to do it. Farm-raised salmon are not dyed with artificial coloring. They have learned to synthesize natural carotenoids or pigments in the lab (astaxanthin and canthaxanthin) and add it to the food. Wild salmon feed on anchovy, sardine, herring, and shrimp for their color…
    to Synthesize, usually means a process which combines together two or more pre-existing elements reulting in the formation of something NEW.
    Carotenoids are organic pigments that are naturally occurring as are asytaxanthins and are fat soluble pigments.
    The FDA approved astaxanthin as a FOOD COLORING for specific uses in animal and fish food.
    Canthaxanthin is a carotenoid pigmant widely distributed in nature but is NOT found in wild Atlantic Salmon…
    So if you did not add these pigments to the fish what color would it be? If it is different then is it not dyed?

  6. BillUSA, I really don’t know why you come here but since you did I will answer. I am sorry it wasn’t clearer. Yes, I admit than the Atlantic salmon was different from the other two which you refer too. We were tasting THREE types of salmon and his point was that Copper was in the same
    genus Oncorhynchus as the other Pacific we tasted.

    I wasn’t challenging your point, I was trying to get it straight. I wish I was as smart as you. I guess I never will be.

  7. I can’t speak for him but the first point was he couldn’t get his growers to custom color. Someone in the group offered they could order their salmon any color they wanted. I will send your question.

  8. SCS says, “The organic compounds of the water are imprinted on their olfactory senses and they are then capable of identifying the breakdown of the water. Salmon are able to read their mental maps based on tracing these organic compounds to find the tributaries.”

    I’d love to read the supportive documentation. Perhaps just a guess?

  9. Nancy,
    Your peer, Tim Rogers, never learned this, but it’s OK to let critical comments slide, or to reposition them as helpful. The criticism of Tim on FrontBurner affected his job and personal life, which is why Uncle Wick pulled comments. I’d hate to see the same thing happen to you, Freckle Face.

  10. I thought this was a fascinating post, a welcome change to read, and quite in-depth for a blog post. Thanks for starting the dialogue, Nancy.

  11. Billusa99, while I am sure you are correct with all you mundane chatter, you are missing the point of the “Blind Tasting” They gathered together to have a FUN evening and taste 3 samples of Salmon that have a fairly good chance of showing up on Dallas menus and see if indeed we could tell which one was Copper River and then does it justify the current price being charged. It was never about comparing 3 exact species from 3 different rivers.
    Peel back the curtains, get out and live a little.
    YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE MAKE SURE IT’S ENOUGH!

  12. Wow, I completly missed this one. I thought we were talking about blind salmon. Born blind, losing sight during life and blinded while caught…..by the way I liked the born blind better

  13. @Billusa: Why don’t you take this post for what it is, a tasting and not a science experiment? I’ve got to stand up for my colleague (and friend) here. She is trying to build a community of involved, invested and engaged food lovers and give them a place to talk, laugh, inform and gossip (hey, we all need a little gossip in our lives). Why not appreciate the effort being made here to broaden everybody’s food experiences?

    All I can say about the whole experience is it made me jealous I had to cover a baseball game that night and couldn’t take part in a really fun food tasting.

  14. Evan: When an event is positioned as a “blind tasting,” it takes on something of a scientific bent among people who know something about tastings.

    In Nancy Nichols’ own words: “The event was sparked by a debate last week on whether Copper River salmon is more flavorful than other wild salmon or if it is just marketed more effectively…. We set out to see if this was true. The goal was to taste test three wild salmon samples in a blind test.”

    You are more than welcome to defend your fried, but trying to reposition her motivation as “trying to build a community of involved, invested and engaged food lovers and give them a place to talk, laugh, inform and gossip (hey, we all need a little gossip in our lives)…” is revisionist history at best.

    Crumudgeon re: “Peel back the curtains, get out and live a little. YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE MAKE SURE IT’S ENOUGH!” You’ve unintentionally (I hope) made one of the dumbest comments I have ever read on this blog. Billusa99 lives his life more fully than anyone else I know.

  15. Kirk, wow let’s resort to name calling, very mature. As for Billusa99, all his posts take on a very arugmentive tone.
    Did he attend the tasting or just play arm chair quarterback and second guess an event that was for enjoyment. One that he did not organize, help with, participate in or otherwise lend his expertise? The easiest thing in the world is to critize someone or something, because you have the benefit of hindsight and uninvolvement.
    “Those that can… do, those that can’t…teach”
    What are you teaching today?

    Will you come to the cavalier tasting?

  16. Apparently, someone needs to teach orthography to you. Rest assured it won’t be me.

    Have fun at the cavalier tasting!

  17. The nonchalant, carefree (ie cavalier) tasting sounds like phun……

  18. can we please talk about food. Kirk, Evan (i think) is referring to SideDish after the first sentence, not the tasting. Can we please pull in our fangs and get back on track. You are a smart and knowledgeable person and I am always appreciative when you leave insightful comments. I guess I just don’t understand how a salmon tasting event followed by a Q&A on salmon turned into such a mean-spirited forum. I like to live in the moment and got excited about learning more about salmon and pulled together a quick tasting for anyone who wanted to learn more. Sure there were some blunders in the method and misunderstandings in the initial reports (it was quite chaotic and the product changed at the last minute), but the tasting was meant to be a starting point for conversation about seafood. It was all volunteer; nobody made any money; nobody paid anything to participate.

  19. Sword down, fangs withdrawn as John Belushi in Animal House so aptly stated after smashing the guitar. Sorry.

  20. And now for something completely new..
    Is bulga caviar even available? Or is it not sold anymore in the US. I checked the net and some place say they have it but most are out of stock.
    Champagne, vodka and caviar. Ahhhh, the 80′s. Can we have them back.

  21. the tasting was about fun and enjoying good food and good wine; could it have been done differently yes but did everyone there enjoy themselves yes

    i would have preferred to try all three sashimi style but we werent allowed; maybe i’ll go by a filet of each this afternoon and do so

  22. Can you, should you, would you eat Atlantic Salmon sashimi? Before the tasting I would have said no, but that Fundy fish was very good. Now I would probably try it.
    Also with 80 percent of Chilian salmon dead will the price jump or has it already?

  23. goodness. i learned a lot from reading this post today. I mean I buy it at Costco. hope you do this again.

  24. Re: cookingfresh,”Also with 80 percent of Chilian salmon dead will the price jump or has it already?”

    Steve Connolly’s price for Atlantic salmon has jumped about %25 in the last month due to the salmon virus in Chile

  25. cookingfresh: Since 2005 the USFWF has banned the importation of beluga caviar from the caspian and Black Sea.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beluga_caviar

    On the one hand this is a bummer. On the other hand it is one thing that has spurred a lot innovation to find an alternative. I suspect a lot of money will be made in the next few years harvesting sturgeon in US and Canadian lakes.

  26. Hmm. Funny how BillUSA disappears after leaving his snide comments. Guess he feels he is too good for those of us that don’t know much. I’m sorry I missed the tasting. And if you do caviar i am in.

  27. i want to echo the sentiments that the event at TJ’s was supposed to be FUN. and everyone who attended had a blast. i hope Nancy, Willie and I answered your questions as best we could. if anyone has anymore specific questions, feel free to email me:

    jon@tjsseafood.com

  28. Is it just me, or is he holding either a white or a striped bass in that photo?

  29. Outstanding blog post. I should venture over here more often. The best salmon is the one you catch, clean, and eat right then. Ocean salmon taste better than river salmon as the river salmon have mostly quit eating and have started to decompose. The flesh tends to get more red the closer to spawning they get and perhaps are reddest at death, so I don’t really have a good association with color v. quality. IJS. Wild v. farmed is generally best in most cases isn’t it?