There was a big fillet of king salmon on my cutting board, a shimmering, deep orange, magnificent in its heft. It resembled the farmed salmon you see at the supermarket all year long in the same way a perfect, just-picked peach from the orchard resembles the one in syrup you’re served on an airplane. It was glistening with hard-earned fat, a product of thousands of miles of migration and eating, from birth in the snow-fed headwaters of Alaskan rivers to a life lived in the sea beneath. Wild salmon takes its bright color and derives its rich flavor from the forage it hunts on its journey away from and back to home, not from the pellets a farmer selects for hue and feeds the fish as they swim lazily in a pen.
I pan-roasted mine in foaming butter backed up by the instant zip and high heat of jalapeño peppers. When I had consumed it in a rush of pleasure, I got to thinking about where such salmon come from, who catches them and how they make their way across the United States.
The questions led to phone calls and discussions about fish farming and sustainability — wild-caught Alaskan salmon, harvested each year from late spring until fall, is rated a Best Choice by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program — and eventually to Tele Aadsen and her husband, Joel Brady-Power, commercial fishermen out of Bellingham, Wash. (Aadsen uses ‘‘fisherman’’ for herself as well.) Each summer the couple steam north to Sitka, Alaska, aboard their 43-foot boat, the Nerka, to troll for salmon along the southeast Alaskan coast. It takes four days if the tides are right, the weather holds, the engine does what it’s supposed to do. They have made the passage each June for as long as either can remember. Brady-Power’s parents built the Nerka in 1979 as a salmon troller and brought him aboard when he was an infant. He took over the boat 12 years ago, when he was 22. Aadsen, 39, is a child of Sitka whose parents were also commercial fishermen. She joined Brady-Power aboard the Nerka in 2006.
There are five varieties of wild salmon in Alaska: king, coho, sockeye, pink and chum. Aadsen and Brady-Power chase two of them. At the start of July, the couple take the Nerka from Sitka to the Fairweather Grounds, well offshore of Glacier Bay National Park, for the opening of the king-salmon season. When it closes, they turn to coho and fish until the fall, working under quotas that help ensure that enough salmon can get into their home rivers to spawn and keep the fishery alive. They work along 500 miles of coast. It is a big office.