Even in the salmon-happy Pacific Northwest, where the annual arrival of Copper River king is granted holiday status, tuna has salmon licked at the supermarket. But at least one sustainable seafood expert thinks it's time for eaters to reconsider canned salmon.
"When you're buying canned salmon, more money will go in the pockets of the fishermen we want to support," says Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.
In a recent essay for The Atlantic, Greenberg claimed salmon has a clear environmental edge over tuna, which is frequently caught in the unmanaged high seas. And many tuna fishermen continue to use the controversial fishing methods which led to the creation of "dolphin-safe" labels in the early 1990s. While salmon nets occasionally ensnare marine mammals, Greenberg says the purse seiners used to capture tuna pose a far greater risk to dolphins and other sea creatures.
Additionally, Greenberg says, reviving the domestic canned salmon market could provide a strong argument for the protection of fisheries now threatened by destructive mining projects, like the one in Alaska's Bristol Bay. While there's little chance of salmon canneries reopening in the lower 48 states, where "nearly all of salmon is on human life support," Greenberg says Bristol Bay—where half of the 60 million sockeyes caught are shipped overseas—is on pace for a record-setting salmon season.
"When you buy canned tuna, you're potentially contributing to habitat destruction," Greenberg says. "When you buy canned salmon, you're kind of contributing to habitat preservation."
So why did Americans lose their appetite for canned salmon? While refrigerators and airplanes help explain the increased availability of—and demand for—fresh fish, it's harder to reconcile the near-disappearance of canned salmon from pantries with the enduring popularity of canned tuna.
According to canning experts, tuna became the nation's default canned fish because it can't be successfully flash-frozen. Greenberg also suspects canned salmon is a victim of changing American tastes.
"We've tended to drift away from anything with flavor," he says.
At the turn of the 20th century, Greenberg says, eaters commonly dined on mackerel, herring, and other fishes now derided as "fishy." The national disinterest in canned salmon has led producers to flash-freeze a significant portion of their catch. But canned salmon has a few distinct advantages: it's relatively cheap (although it remains slightly more expensive than tuna), and can be stashed in lunchboxes and stored at food banks, allowing eaters of all ages and income levels to derive the benefits of a salmon snack.
For those accustomed to feasting on grilled Copper River king, the canned stuff is a lowly substitute. But Greenberg swears an eater armed with lemon and mayonnaise—and the knowledge that canned salmon is overwhelmingly superior to canned tuna on the sustainability front—has the makings of a delicious meal.