We often forget that many beings in this Universe can’t speak to defend themselves. So in this light, let’s talk about the world’s favourite fish, salmon. Across the board, we are eating way too much of it. It has been considered the king of fish by many cultures, and now thanks to a very globalised marketplace, our tastes are becoming increasingly international – but heck why can’t we travel with food from our very own homes? From before the Middle Ages, the idea of eating foreign food has been considered ‘luxurious’ and great value has been placed on imports, yet little do we think about the ripple effect of demand and a travelling eco-footprint. Im here to explore the pathway of a very trendy food that has been in the limelight for way too long – salmon.
What a better place to start my journey than from my own home in Bangkok, where we are seeing great economic growth, an increasingly globalised population, and a booming middle class. We Thais look to our ultra cool neighbours for cultural and gastronomical inspiration, so countries like Japan and Hong Kong are a powerful influence on both popular culture and food – mind you eating in Asia is a VERY important pastime. Successful Japanese food franchises open branches in Bangkok and a new kind of Japanese-Thai fusion spreads like wildfire amongst local restaurants. The newly expanding middle class are spending their money on luxuries like leisure, travel, fashion, food, and all of these things speak loudly about status in society too.
Salmon, one of these luxury commodities has been popping up on menus from middle to higher tiered eateries, and they’re all competing to feed a customer base of 16 million or so just in one city. I found that salmon in Bangkok was increasingly looking more and more insipid in colour, its texture felt almost synthetic, and became confused by how our oceans could possibly support all of this demand, at an alarmingly low price. The first round of questioning became a frustrating dance. Getting a straight answer about the origin of your fish-y meal was not only confusing to restaurant staff, but it became clear that they hadn’t a clue about what they are serving to their customers. The logical thing to do was to trace my way back to the source. Perhaps some answers were waiting for me there.
It’s bizarre that salmon has taken the spotlight on most menus around the world, especially now with Japanese cuisine that has taken territory in just about every suburban environment in the west. Bjorn Eiriek Olsen who worked to rebrand Norway’s salmon export in the 80s paints a very interesting picture into the matter. It is known that in the ’80s, the country had a massive surplus of salmon on their hands. The government hired Bjorn to sell it to Japan because of their massive consumption of fish, so he went to Tokyo, got a bunch of Japanese fish industry execs together, and pushed this fish to them as the next major ‘thing’ in seafood.
It’s interesting to note that before then, Japanese people didn’t eat raw salmon because of its strange colour, smell, oddly shaped head, and renowned for having parasites thus only served well-cooked. A massive advertising campaign focusing on Norway’s pure, clean waters rolled out and the frozen surplus was sold for a very low cost to frozen food giant Nishi Rei on the condition that it was sold as sushi to stores. And that folks, was how Japan helped Norway with its fish problem but also the story of how sushi spread around the world; opened with a mild tasting, orange, fatty fish gateway.
The next place on my investigation list was where salmon has been regarded ‘king of fish’ since the 1400s – I’m taking you to the salty waters of Ireland where people have lived off the ocean since before the Bronze ages and there is much evidence of a historical salmon export trade. It is said that Irish fishermen who took advantage of the North Atlantic fisheries during the 15th Century and were credited with having very up-to-date ships. In the 18th Century we saw much salted salmon being exported to France and Italy, so it’s safe to say that the industry in Ireland roots itself in a very long history indeed. In 1820 thanks to the introduction of trawlers, the price of salmon became so competitive that it was driven down as low as one penny per pound. I wanted to find out how the industry has holding up today, and whether the highly sought-after ‘wild Irish salmon’ was still coping in numbers or if they were coping at all.
As a tourist to the country, you are presented with Irish salmon as early as the airport, your first point of contact. Here, you are introduced to a range of locally produced salmon from organic farmed, to wild, to the unmarked, most likely farmed variety. It was interesting to find out from the check out clerk that organic Irish salmon sales were on the rise. Was this because of a well-informed customer? Or was it thanks to a competitive price point or organic farmed compared to the wild?
It was important to find out that the great turning point for the Irish fishing industry came with the introduction of the railways which could provide refrigerated transportation to inland markets. I think Mairtin Mac Con Iomaire put the entire progression of fishing very nicely in his paper on ‘The History of Seafood in Irish Cuisine and Culture’,
“The exploitation of all marine resources can be categorised as moving through stages: The first is the gathering / harvesting stage where the animals are gathered for personal use within a family or among neighbours… Once any species becomes a traded commodity it moves into the exploitation stage. Professional fishermen enter the fishery and control effectively passes to market forces. Without the vital stage of resource management, the inevitable outcome of exploitation is over-fishing, resulting in the eventual depletion of natural wild stocks. The logical commercial stage that follows over- exploitation is (artificial) cultivation or fish farming…” – Mac Con Iomaire (2006)
Currently, with the collapse of fish stocks in European waters, it seems that the industry is ignoring sustainable guidelines. Little transparency is very much responsible for adding more mud to these mirky waters, but the truth is that fisheries need to be working with conservationists for the future of their business. It is a known fact that systems like protected marine reserves can provide a more diversified catch to fishing boats outside of these zones. It should be a symbiotic relationship that benefits both, rather than a great divide between the two sides. A report written by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a London think tank, has named Ireland as one of the biggest offenders in terms of ignoring scientific advice on sustainable fisheries and policy. The solution has been proven, that protected marine areas are both beneficial to fish and fishermen, yet fisheries are not yet convinced. It seems like a paradox to me.
So as I reached for the dreamy looking vacuum packed Wild Irish Salmon, I knew that this was definitely not something that I could feel good about eating. The sustainable option is to go for Organically grown, farmed salmon, produced by much more responsible farming practices and the safer step forward to getting those wild stocks back to a healthy number. We should always question how a fish is farmed but at the moment it is the best option for a salmon hungry market. Something to take away from all of this is that we really need to be eating a range of foods, so why not give a species you’ve never tried a chance? We have collapsed fish stocks on our hands so the time is now to think about what you’re ordering, cooking, and buying.
Written by Lauren Yates.