California customers will see other fish and more expensive salmon filling the 2023 void

SJM L DUBLIN 0211 01

The 2023 salmon fishing season in California is now over. But wild salmon, always wildly popular with restaurant-goers, will still find its place on Bay Area menus this year.

It’s a matter of when, where and – perhaps most importantly for consumers – at what price?

After reading the news this week, Mark Matulich of the Steamers Grillhouse family, a Los Gatos mainstay for over 40 years, reached out to his seafood purveyors.

“If we get any wild salmon, it has to come from Oregon, Washington or Alaska,” he said. And once additional shipping and handling fees are factored in, he expects “a significant increase in price for what we can bring to the table.”

Fabrice Poigin, culinary director of King’s Seafood restaurants in Southern California and Valley Fair in Santa Clara, remains confident he can deliver what customers want. “We will be able to ship wild salmon all season long as most of our wild salmon comes from Washington and Alaska.”

However, he said: “This is terrible news for our local salmon fishermen.”

With salmon numbers dwindling after the last three years of drought, the Pacific Fishery Management Council has recommended a ban on all commercial or sport salmon fishing off the coast of California through April 2024 at the earliest. The season normally starts around April 1st. This year’s season cancellation will be the first since 2008-09, and these are the first cancellations since commercial salmon fishing began in 1848, before the Gold Rush, according to the Federation of Pacific Fishermen’s Associations.

The financial loss to the fishing industry and related businesses is estimated at over US$1 billion.

“It’s going to be tough for sure,” said Cody Reed of Reed Family Fisheries, based in the port of Santa Cruz, noting that they’ve already been affected by the late start of Dungeness’s crab season. “We can’t fish and our customers can’t eat Californian king salmon.” He will now focus on other fisheries such as albacore and sablefish.

As for restaurants, they will be able to minimize the impact by introducing customers 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 to 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, owner of Sushi Confidential restaurants in San Jose, Campbell and Morgan Hill.

Despite the California Fish Grill name, the lack of a California season may not have much effect on this fast-casual chain, which has locations in Walnut Creek, El Cerrito, San Mateo and San Jose. On its website, the company boasts that it only serves seafood rated “Top 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. Farm-raised Atlantic salmon comes from marine net ponds in Norway, Canada and Chile.

Rob Francis, executive chef at Aqui restaurants, said he saw a link between the price of sustainably farmed salmon used in his kitchens and wild salmon. “Farm prices jump a little when the wild season ends or it’s not very strong” and go down a little 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 high-quality organic salmon raised on an open ocean farm in British Columbia – now an Asian barbecue topping preparation with wasabi cream. When he does manage to source wild northern salmon, he said he will likely offer both wild and farmed salmon on the menu to give customers a choice in terms of how much they are willing to pay.

“It’s a matter of waiting for Oregon and Washington,” he said. “Until then, we are all in the same boat.”

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