California’s 2023 salmon-fishing season is off. But wild salmon, always wildly popular with restaurant-goers, will still find its way onto Bay Area menus this year.
It’s a matter of when, from where and — perhaps most important for consumers — at what price?
After reading the news this week, Mark Matulich of the family-owned Steamers Grillhouse, a Los Gatos mainstay for more than 40 years — checked in with his seafood suppliers.
“If we do get any wild king salmon, it’s going to have to come from Oregon, Washington or Alaska,” he said. And once additional shipping and handling charges are taken into account, he’s expecting “a significant increase in the price of what we can bring to the table.”
Fabrice Poigin, culinary director of the King’s Seafood restaurants in Southern California and at Valley Fair in Santa Clara, remains confident he can supply what diners want. “We will be able to carry wild salmon throughout the season regardless, as most of our wild salmon comes from Washington and Alaska.”
However, he said, “This is terrible news for our local salmon fishermen.”
With numbers of salmon dwindling after the past three drought years, the Pacific Fishery Management Council recommended prohibiting all commercial or sport salmon fishing off the coast of California until April 2024 at the earliest. The season would typically start around April 1. This year’s season cancellation will be the first since 2008-09, and those were the first cancellations since commercial salmon fishing began in 1848, before the Gold Rush, according to the Pacific Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.
The financial loss to the fishing industry and related businesses is estimated at $1 billion-plus.
“It’s going to be tough for sure,” said Cody Reed of Reed Family Fisheries based at the Santa Cruz Harbor, noting that they already took a hit with the late-starting Dungeness crab season. “We can’t fish, and our customers can’t eat California king salmon.” He’ll switch over to focus on other fisheries like albacore and sablefish.
As for restaurants, they’ll be able to minimize the impact by introducing diners to other fish as well as selling wild Atlantic salmon, wild Northwest salmon and farmed salmon instead of California salmon.
For example, sushi and poke lovers should see little change in their favorite rolls and bowls, according to South Bay restaurateur “Sushi Randy” Musterer. Many Bay Area sushi restaurants already serve farm-raised salmon to maintain consistency, said Musterer, who owns Sushi Confidential restaurants in San Jose, Campbell and Morgan Hill.
Despite the California Fish Grill’s name, the lack of a California season may not even have much of an effect on that fast-casual chain, which has locations in Walnut Creek, El Cerrito, San Mateo and San Jose. On its website, the company boasts that it serves only seafood that is rated “Best Choice or Good Alternative by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program or Eco-Certified by a third party.” The sockeye salmon on the menu is wild-caught in Alaska using gill nets. The farm-raised Atlantic salmon comes from marine net pens in Norway, Canada and Chile.
Rob Francis, executive chef of the Aqui restaurants, said he has seen a link between the price of sustainably raised salmon, which his kitchens use, and wild salmon. “Prices on farm-raised jump a little when the wild season ends or is not very strong” and lower a bit when the wild season is strong, he said.
Back in Los Gatos, when it’s not California salmon season, the Steamers restaurant cooks what Matulich calls a high-quality, organic salmon raised in an open-ocean farm off British Columbia — currently an Asian barbecue glaze preparation with wasabi cream. When he’s able to procure wild salmon from the north, he said he’ll probably offer both wild and farmed on the menu to give customers a choice in terms of how much they want to pay.
“It’s a matter of waiting for Oregon and Washington,” he said. “Until then, we’re all in the same boat.”
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