Farmed salmon cleans up its act

Grilled salmon with orzo, feta and red wine Grilled salmon with orzo, feta and red wine vinaigrette is a recipe from "What's for Dinner?" (Ballantine, $35), by Curtis Stone. Photo Credit: Handout

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Come dinnertime, wild salmon is an excellent choice. Many of the Pacific fisheries are well managed, and the fish itself is healthful and delicious.

The problem is that there isn't very much of it. Worldwide, the annual wild salmon harvest comes to about 2 billion pounds, which sounds like a lot until you divide it by 7 billion earthlings and come up with one serving a person a year.

What's a salmon eater to eat? Go back as little as 10 years, and the answer was definitely not farmed salmon. "It was the thing you weren't supposed to buy," says Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund, which established the Aquaculture Stewardship Council to create sustainability standards for shellfish and fin fish aquaculture worldwide. When the industry was new, salmon farms were accused of polluting the oceans, spreading sea lice, fostering disease, allowing escapees and depleting the stocks of forage fish, up to 7 pounds of which went into each pound of farmed Atlantic salmon. All of those accusations were true in some locales, and some were true in all.

But the salmon farmers did a funny thing. They listened. The survival of the industry depended on farmers cleaning up their act, and so that's what they started to do.

By 2004, the World Wildlife Fund, working with the industry, had started to develop detailed standards. "The industry had begun to make improvements," says Clay. Nearly a decade later, in June of this year, those Aquaculture Stewardship Council standards -- more than 100 pages of them -- were released. Farms that meet the standards will receive Aquaculture Stewardship Council certification, and many already have begun the process.

Meanwhile, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program has noted industry improvements, as well. It awarded its very first "buy" recommendation to an open-pen salmon farm in Chile named Verlasso, a joint project of salmon producer AquaChile and DuPont, the latter of which developed a genetically engineered yeast that produces a substitute for fish oil -- an important part of the salmon's diet -- that's biochemically identical to the real thing. (On Long Island, Verlasso is only available through Fresh Direct delivery service.)

Although all other farmed salmon is still rated "avoid" by Seafood Watch, aquaculture research manager Peter Bridson acknowledges that salmon farming has come a long way. The program is in the process of evaluating farms in other areas, and will come out with revised ratings at the end of the year.

"Our understanding of the science has changed, and production practices have changed," says Bridson. "Some of the older concerns are less of a concern."

Areas the industry has focused on include:

POLLUTION Feed, feces and other byproducts of high fish concentrations have become better controlled.

ESCAPEES There are a lot fewer of them, and concern about Atlantic salmon in nonnative waters, particularly, has decreased. "It's really quite clear that Atlantic salmon are bad at colonizing outside their natural range," says Bridson.

FEED CONVERSION The industry average of as much as 7 pounds of forage fish to grow 1 pound of farmed salmon has come down to 2.5 or 3 pounds, and the best ratios approach 1:1.

CONTAMINANTS In 2004, a controversial study found higher levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins in farmed salmon than in wild salmon. That scared consumers, although the methodology of the study was criticized by health authorities, who continued to recommend eating farmed salmon. More recent research weighing the contaminant risk against health benefits from omega-3s concluded that every serving of salmon, wild or farmed, is a net positive.

PARASITES AND DISEASE This is probably the most serious problem, particularly in areas where farmed salmon and wild salmon populations coexist.

Although "it's fair to say that there's pretty broad agreement that fish farms can raise parasite levels in wild fish," says Martin Krkosek, a biologist at the University of Toronto, the fish farms are getting better at combating parasites.

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GRILLED SALMON WITH ORZO, FETA AND RED WINE VINAIGRETTE

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From "What's for Dinner?" (Ballantine, $35), by Curtis Stone

1 1/2 cups orzo

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons finely chopped shallots

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 ounces fresh baby spinach (about 3 cups loosely packed)

1 1/2 cups grape tomatoes cut in half

1/2 cup toasted pine nuts (see note)

1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh basil leaves

4 (5-ounce) skinless salmon fillets

Olive oil, for coating the fish

1 cup crumbled feta cheese (4 ounces)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives, for garnish

1. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the orzo and cook, stirring often, for about 8 minutes, or until just tender. Drain in a sieve and set aside.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk vinegar, shallots and garlic together. Gradually whisk in olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

3. In a large bowl, toss the warm orzo, spinach, tomatoes, pine nuts and basil with the vinaigrette. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside at room temperature.

4. Prepare an outdoor grill for medium-high cooking over direct heat or preheat a grill pan. Coat the salmon with olive oil; season with salt and pepper. Oil the cooking grate or pan. Lay salmon down with the top right corner of each fillet facing the 2-o'clock position and cook for 4 minutes, without moving the salmon. Using a thin metal spatula, flip the fillets over. Grill for about 2 minutes, or until fish is opaque with a slightly rosy center when flaked in the thickest part with the tip of a small knife.

5. Mound the salad in the center of a large serving platter or 4 dinner plates. Sprinkle with feta cheese. Top with the salmon, sprinkle with the chives, and serve. Makes 4 servings.

NOTE: To toast pine nuts, heat a dry medium skillet over medium. Add nuts and cook, stirring often, for 2 to 3 minutes, or until lightly browned.

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SCANDINAVIAN SALMON STEW WITH DILL

From chef Bob Kinkead of Ancora in Washington, D.C.

12 ounces skinned salmon fillets (preferably Atlantic), pin bones removed

3 cups fish stock (may substitute 2 cups clam juice plus 1 cup water or no-salt-added chicken broth)

1/4 cup dry white wine

2 cups heavy cream

2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice

2 ounces pancetta, diced

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, divided

2 medium shallots, minced (about 1/4 cup), divided

12 medium button mushrooms, stemmed and cut into quarters (about 2 cups)

1 teaspoon sea salt, or more as needed

1/2 teaspoon fresh cracked white pepper, or more as needed

1 medium leek, white part only, minced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

1. Cut the salmon into 1-inch cubes; wrap them tightly and refrigerate until ready to use.

2. Combine the fish stock and wine in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then cook until reduced by a third, 15 to 20 minutes.

3. Add the heavy cream and potatoes to the saucepan; once the liquid returns to a boil, reduce the heat to medium or medium-low, so it's barely bubbling, and cook for 5 minutes. The potatoes should be just tender.

4. Line a plate with a few layers of paper towels. Cook the pancetta in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until it has crisped and browned, then transfer it to the paper towel-lined plate to drain.

5. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter to the same skillet, along with half of the shallots and all of the mushrooms, stirring until the butter has melted. Cook until the moisture released by the mushrooms has evaporated and they have browned. Scrape the mushroom-shallot mixture into the saucepan. Season with the salt and pepper.

6. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in the same skillet over medium heat. Add the leek and the remaining shallots, stirring to coat. Cook, stirring once or twice, until the vegetables have softened, then add them to the saucepan along with the pancetta and the chilled cubes of salmon, stirring gently to incorporate.

7. Once the liquid starts to bubble, cook for 1 minute, then remove the saucepan from the heat. The salmon should be just cooked through. Taste, adjust the seasoning as needed and whisk in the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter, making sure it has been thoroughly incorporated.

8. Just before serving, stir in the dill. Divide among individual bowls.

Makes 8 servings.

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