Grocery shoppers have their pick of dozens of different tunas: Most supermarkets stock tuna packed in oil, tuna packed in water, low-sodium tuna and tuna seasoned with lemon pepper. The towers of tuna cans typically eclipse the few lonely tins of salmon, which once ruled the processed fish market.
When the salmon canning industry peaked, more than 1000 canneries lined the Pacific coast from California to Alaska. Canneries were largely done in by slumping supply and changing tastes, 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 fisherman 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. While there's little chance of salmon canneries re-opening in the lower 48 states, where "nearly all of salmon is on human life support", Greenberg says Alaska's Bristol Bay is on pace for a record-setting salmon season.
Half of the 60 million sockeye salmon caught in Bristol Bay are shipped overseas. Greenberg believes if the domestic salmon market was more robust, salmon prices would rise and supporters of the proposed Pebble Mine project would be forced to closely scrutinize how the plan would affect Bristol Bay and the economic value of its salmon fishery.
"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 Steve Milum, operations manager for the North Pacific Cannery National Historic Site in Prince Rupert, B.C., theorizes tuna became the nation's default canned fish because it can't be successfully flash-frozen. Unlike salmon, tuna "goes extra soft and mushy" when frozen, making canning a more viable preservation technique.
Greenberg suspects canned salmon is a victim of changing American tastes.
"We've tended to drift away from anything with flavor," he says. "The rise of chicken leads consumers in the direction of flavor neutrality."
At the turn of the 20th century, Greenberg says, eaters commonly dined on mackerel, herring and other fishes now derided as "fishy." The affection for pungent, oily fishes hasn't abated in the United Kingdom, where canned salmon remains a popular item.
"The British love tinned salmon," Greenberg says. "Americans know it's good for them, but they don't seem to like it."
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: Canned salmon is relatively cheap (although it remains slightly more expensive than tuna), and it 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 eaters accustomed to feasting on grilled Copper River king salmon, canned salmon 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.