In a recent blog post, Jon Rowley shared some wisdom about fish handling. “How a fish is caught and handled during its first three hours out of the water determines its eating qualities.” Well then, what happens to the highest-quality wild Alaskan salmon during this critical three hour period?

It isn’t easy to generalize about salmon handling in Alaska. Handling varies according to area, gear type, and species. (If you’re interested in how the areas are divided, see the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s report on the 2010 salmon haul.) For this post, my focus is troll-caught salmon, which can produce some of the high-quality salmon available. (It must be noted that gillnetting can also produce great salmon, as often seen on the Copper River.) With this variability in mind, let’s take a look at how troll-caught salmon should be handled.

First, the salmon needs to be caught. The Department of Fish and Game determines the fishing season and the number of salmon that can be caught. Their goal: to allow fishermen to operate, but in a way that ensures the salmon run will be strong for years to come (sustainability). This often means curbing the year’s salmon catch, or, if a species is struggling, canceling it entirely. In short, salmon fishermen follow rules that often change from year to year.

But the best ways of handling salmon remain constant. Salmon can be sold as fresh or frozen. In the case of troll-caught salmon, we’re usually talking king, coho, and, to a lesser extent, sockeye–the species most commonly sold fresh. Jon says that the salmon should be processed, “as soon as possible after they come aboard.” But before the salmon come aboard, the fisherman should “conk them on the top of the head… so they don’t flop and lose scales.” After stunning the fish, the fisherman bleeds it by “severing an artery between the heart and gill” and then the fish is dressed and iced before rigor mortis settles in.

Jon notes the importance of the salmon’s scales. “They’re the best indicator of freshness and handling,” he says. As the time out of water increases, scales (and quality) drop off. If the fish has a full coat of scales, it has been handled perfectly.

Salmon is mostly caught from mid-April to late-October. The salmon run is the annual journey of salmon back to their birthplace, to spawn new salmon. Salmon spend their saltwater lives accumulating fat, which they expend on the difficult trip back to freshwater.

In recent years, the Department of Fish and Game has been strict with salmon seasons. The coho season has lasted a few short months around when summer turns to fall. The summer season for troll-caught king has been supplemented by limited fishing in other seasons. Indeed, fresh king can be had in the winter–but for a price.

Frozen at Sea (FAS) salmon is a viable alternative.

In the Frozen at Sea process, salmon are caught by vessels that are specially outfit for freezing. After freezing the fish, it is dipped into the water (glazed), producing a thin sheet of ice that keeps air away from the fish before a final, very cold freezing. FAS salmon can also be vacuum-packed. 

When working with your purveyors, make sure they know what you expect. When bringing in wild salmon, ask questions about the quality of the fish. Find out about the relationships your purveyor has with the people supplying the salmon. If they deliver salmon that doesn’t meet your standards, tell them why. Jon believes that good salmon takes a philosophical and financial commitment. “The quality of fish coming into a restaurant depends directly on how much the chef knows about buying fish, and the relationship chefs have with their purveyor.”