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Catch of the Day

The Majestic Salmon.

The Majestic Salmon.It’s an iconic image. A grizzly bear, a salmon, a shallow stream and towering Alaskan mountains in the background. Perhaps it’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word salmon. Or does the word conjure up images of momentous fights against all the odds of these tremendous fish to make it upstream to spawn. Or perhaps you see a nutritious meal, packed with amazingly healthy omega-3.

Salmon is the layman’s term for several species of fish in the family Salmonidae. Other fish in the same family include trout, grayling and whitefish. A good portion of salmon can be classified either as Pacific (Oncorhynchus genus) or Atlantic (Salmo genus) salmon, according to the ocean in which they are found. There is just one native species of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), while there are many species of Pacific salmon. However these days it’s harder to find wild salmon since the majority, 80% of all consumed salmon, is farmed.

Salmon eggs take about four to five weeks to hatch from the time of spawning. From the eggs come the fry, and they stay in the freshwater streams for one to four years, feeding off small insects. At this point they have camouflaged stripes on their backs.

When they leave the relative safety of the stream they lose their stripes and become a striking silver colour. At this point changes in their body make it possible for them to survive in the salt water. It is estimated that only about 10% of all salmon eggs make it to this stage. They also change their diet of small insects and start feeding off sand eels and herring.

After about five years in the open seas, it’s time for the salmon to make their way to their spawning ground. This journey begins in the autumn. It was always thought that the legend of salmon returning to their birth place to spawn was just that, a legend. However research has proven it to be true, and that they do indeed return to the same spot where they were born.

Stories are told of the tremendous distances that salmon will swim, and how they will battle against the strongest of tides and currents to get back to their birth place. When they return they do not feed while in the fresh water of the stream. The female salmon builds a redd, the salmon equivalent to a nest, by using her tail to flick the sand and gravel at the bottom of the river bed to make a depression and covers the eggs.The Majestic Salmon. After spawning, the adult salmon generally die. With the new eggs and birth of the fry, the life cycle of the salmon continues, unless they are unfortunate enough to meet up with the grizzly bear in our first image.

However it’s not just the grizzly bear who has worked out the migration of the salmon. Hundreds of years ago man was aware of the migratory nature of the salmon and used this knowledge for centuries in their own fishing.

We can see this with the Ainu of Northern Japan, who found they could catch large numbers of the fish using gill nets across the streams as the salmon made their way up to their spawning grounds. On the other side of the world many people of the northern Pacific coast held a ceremony to honour the return of the first salmon of the year. And like their Japanese counterparts, they fished the salmon for hundreds of years as the salmon swam upstream to spawn.

Like other fish, in addition to being consumed in fresh form, preservation techniques such as smoking or salting were used to preserve the salmon. Smoked salmon is considered traditional fare in many cuisines throughout the world. In Japan salmon still plays an important role in their culinary history. It is a tradition to present salted salmon as a new year’s gift. This custom originated in the Edo period (1603-1868), when samurai would bring salted salmon as an end of year’s gift to the shogunate. Eventually, the local people also took up the practice and many Japanese continue this practice each year.

The salmon is a great source of protein and vitamin D, and as an oily fish is also rich in omega-3 fatty acid. These all combine to make it an excellent health promoting food. Four ounces of baked or broiled salmon can contain at least two grams of omega-3 fats - more than the average U.S. adult gets from all meals over the course of several days.

So what are these health promoting benefits? Well, as we all know, there is a connection between the intake of fish rich in omega 3 and the reduction of cardiovascular problems such as heart attacks and high blood pressure. Some research has also pointed to it possibly reducing depression in teenagers and cognitive decline in older people. Other benefits of the omega-3 component of salmon are improved control of the body's inflammatory processes, joint protection, and decreased risk of macular degeneration and chronic dry eye. There is also evidence for a regular in-take of omega-3 fish decreasing the risk for several types of cancer, in particular breast, prostate and lymph cell-related cancers such as leukaemia. Some traditional Chinese medicine practitioners also believe salmon promotes fertility in women.

Some people are worried however about the toxins in farmed fish, but published reports have assessed that levels of toxins, such as PCB, though higher in farmed fish than in wild salmon, are still within safe limits. In addition they found that mercury contents aren’t dangerously high. The health benefits definitely outweigh any concern over such toxins. If it is still something of particular concern for you it is advised to choose a smaller wild salmon, which is lower down on the food chain and will therefore have acquired less mercury in its lifecycle.

The strength of these small but determined swimmers, makes the salmon a champion amongst fish. And even if the majority of today’s salmon don’t have to complete a hero’s journey in their lives, eating them will bring you strength and health.

          

Natalie Hughes


 


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