Atlantic salmon from Chile?

The other day we received an email from a customer inquiring about Atlantic salmon.  He had picked up a package of Atlantic salmon and noticed that it had the words, “Product of Chile,” printed on it.  He wondered how this could possibly be, as Chile is situated on the Pacific, not Atlantic, Ocean?

I realized that this customer understood the adjective “Atlantic” as a descriptor of point of origin, like Washington apples or French wine.  That makes sense.  But you don’t have to think of many examples before you realize that a place name as an adjective doesn’t necessarily define point of origin.  Think of Swiss cheese, Holstein cows, and Fuji apples.  Yes, you can argue that these examples originally defined a point of origin.  But you can now buy Swiss cheese made in Wisconsin, and you can buy Atlantic salmon grown in Chile.

As a transplant to the Northwest and a chef, I’ve delighted in learning all I can about the various species of salmon.  I’ll confess that before we moved out here twelve years ago, “salmon” to me almost always meant Atlantic; it just wasn’t in the family budget to splurge on the various Pacific species.  So I had a lot of education to catch up on once I rooted myself in the Evergreen State!

The best encapsulation I’ve found of the scientific nuances of the family Salmonidae (incorporating both Atlantic and Pacific salmon, including trout and Artic char) comes from Diane Morgan’s marvelous “Salmon A Cookbook”.  Ms. Morgan explains that Atlantic salmon come from a different genus (Salmo) than Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus).  With Atlantic salmon, there is only one species- salar; with Pacific Oncorhynchus, you have six species native to North America that you can cook, taste, eat and learn about!

Regrettably, the genus and species Homo sapien has done a pretty efficient job eliminating Atlantic salmon from their native habitat, at least for commercial purposes.  Positive efforts are being made; in my old stomping grounds, UMass is doing good work with research to repopulate the Connecticut River.  But even if these scientists are successful, it’s likely that only sport fisherman will be able to enjoy the flavor and nuances of wild Salmo salar.

As populations of native Atlantic salmon were becoming depleted, salmon farming began in Norway in the early ‘70’s.  Aquaculture of the species soon expanded to Scotland.  The largest producers of farmed salmon are now Norway and Chile, with England and Canada supplying large quantities also.  Several Pacific salmon species are also farmed, specifically the Chinook and Coho.  But the Atlantic salmon accounts for almost 90% of all farm raised salmonid.   According to one source, Chile supplies 65% of the salmon consumed in the United States.

Long story short, it’s almost guaranteed that if you are enjoying Atlantic salmon, it was raised in Chile!

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