Here’s how to buy the healthiest and most sustainable salmon that’s best for you—and the planet.
When it comes to flavor, wild salmon is where it’s at. As one of the healthiest fish you can eat, it's higher in omega-3 fatty acids (which can help fight seasonal allergies, among many other things) and also packs less saturated fat than farmed. It’s also a sustainable seafood: the Alaskan salmon fishery—America’s main source of wild salmon—is managed to ensure the plentiful return of wild fish in the future.
At the store, keep an eye out for the blue sticker bestowed by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which certifies it was caught using sustainable fishing practices that take factors such as catch methods, overfishing, degraded water quality, and by-catch problems into account.
Image courtesy of Marine Stewardship Council
Here are a few things to keep in mind when purchasing three of the most popular species of wild salmon: Sockeye, Chinook, and Pink.
Sockeye: Though it’s one of the smallest salmon in the sea, sockeye are known for their succulent orange flesh, which makes them among the most popular. Look for MSC-certified fish, or buy sockeye sourced from Alaska (most of it is these days), which has some of the most heralded commercial fishery oversight in the world.
Chinook: Weighing up to 30 pounds, Chinook, or king salmon, is the largest and most prized salmon in the sea. It can be found from central California to Southwest Alaska. Some Chinook populations in California and the Pacific Northwest are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, so look for MSC-certified fish or Chinook from Alaska, where none of the populations are listed as endangered.
Pink: The smallest and most abundant of salmon, pink salmon are most often sold canned. They are found mainly in areas from Washington’s Puget Sound to Alaska, where they are very well managed. Since pink salmon only have a two-year lifespan, their abundance is difficult to forecast. Look for the MSC label, or ask if they were harvested in Alaska.
While farm-raised salmon were long looked down upon for polluting oceans and depleting wild species, among other things, new aquaculture practices are making them an increasingly sustainable choice (for more information visit the World Wildlife Fund’s Aquaculture Stewardship Program).
Most of the salmon consumed in the United States is farmed Atlantic salmon, a fast-growing species. These commonly live in small pens and are fed pellets containing fish oil, fish meal, plants, essential nutrients, and sometimes carotenoids, which give them the pink flesh that wild salmon acquire by eating krill.
After many years of poor environmental practices, some fish farms are rehabilitating their practices with new aquaculture systems. Look for the Aquaculture Stewardship Council Certified label, which ensures that salmon farms adhere to specific requirements for feed, clean sea beds, and minimal impact to the environment and native salmon.
Image courtesy of Aquaculture Stewardship Council
Some grocers, such as Whole Foods Market, also offer a “responsibly farmed” third-party rating system that guarantees that farmed salmon was raised in low-density pens, using natural pigments and no antibiotics or growth hormones.
Genetically Engineered Salmon
Unfortunately, farmed salmon is also where you’re most likely to encounter genetically engineered salmon.
The first GE salmon, called AquaAdvantage Salmon, is genetically modified to grow twice as fast as unmodified salmon, so farmers can ostensibly grow them faster and sell them quicker. It was approved by the FDA in 2015.
Though polling has indicated that consumers want genetically engineered food to be labeled as such, the FDA is leaving the decision up to manufacturers. The practical effect of this is it is impossible to know whether farmed salmon is GE or not—AquaAdvantage salmon will simply be called “Atlantic” along with other farmed salmon
“Fresh” means that the salmon wasn’t previously frozen—not that it just came off the boat. Ask fish sellers when the salmon came in and when it was filleted so you know its true shelf life. Salmon is fresh for about one week after it was caught. Also good to know: salmon fishing season lasts from June to August, so if you see “fresh” wild salmon in January, there’s very little chance that it’s actually fresh. (Check out this video for how to prepare a week’s worth of lunches with this one-pan salmon and veggie meal.)
For high-quality, affordable wild salmon, the frozen food section of your grocery store is often your best bet. Nearly all wild-caught Alaskan salmon gets immediately frozen—sometimes right out of the water at Frozen At Sea (FAS) facilities, locking in its freshness and making it much cheaper to transport, since it can travel by truck rather than by air. Per pound, frozen wild salmon can be as little as half the price of what you’d pick up at the fish counter. Look for the term “IQF” on the package, which means that each piece of seafood has been individually and quickly frozen.
To defrost frozen salmon, put it on a plate in the refrigerator overnight. If you’re in a hurry, submerge it in cold water until thawed, 20 minutes or so. (If your salmon isn’t vacuum packed in plastic, put it in a Ziploc bag first.) You can also frozen salmon without defrosting it—just cook the frozen salmon for 20 percent longer than the recipe calls for.
Canned salmon is an affordable alternative to fresh or frozen salmon, and it’s great for recipes like salmon cakes, salads, seafood stews, and pastas. Most, but not all, canned salmon is wild caught, so be sure to check the label: if it says it contains Alaskan pink salmon, sockeye, or red salmon, your salmon is the wild stuff from well-managed fisheries in North American waters.
If you see the term “Atlantic salmon,” that means it’s farmed—Atlantic salmon were fished nearly to extinction in the wild, so are always farmed. Look for the Aquaculture Stewardship Council Certified label; if you don’t see it, pick a different brand—or opt for a canned wild salmon, like Wild Planet. (Here are 4 more canned fish you should avoid at all costs.)