Environmental Working Group

One of the glories of life in Northern California is the annual harvest of wild chinook salmon. We mark the beginning of summer by the first backyard barbecue of grilled chinook (although many people mistakenly call it king salmon). Paired with a bottle of pinot noir, a perfectly charred salmon steak with a drizzle of Meyer lemon is enough to make you forget the cost of housing and the threat of earthquakes.

Not this year. The Pacific Fisheries Management Council decided last week that, in an desperate effort to save the dwindling stocks of wild chinook in California and Oregon, it will likely cancel the salmon season for this year. There may be a very limited season for sport fishing, but the commercial fishermen say they’re already looking ahead to 2009 or 2010. There will be salmon from Washington state and Alaska, but it’s much more expensive, and not quite the same, especially for those of us who take pride in being locavores.

The causes of the California salmon fishery’s collapse are many, but the lion’s share of the blame has to go to irrigated agriculture.

The Central Valley Project and other taxpayer-subsidized irrigation systems have dammed and diverted the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, destroying the migration and spawning habitat needed by the fish. And we’re actually paying corporate agribusiness to destroy the fishery, in the form of almost half a bilion dollars worth of subsidized water a year.

So what’s the alternative this summer? Cheaper farmed salmon is tempting, but not if you know about the high levels of PCBs and other chemicals EWG found in farmed salmon a few years ago. After we filed a lawsuit, some growers and sellers of farmed salmon were able to show that their PCB levels had declined, but there’s not enough data yet to give farmed salmon a clean bill of health.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium recommends California halibut (as long as it’s line-caught) or black rockfish, usually marketed as sea bass. You can get their Safe Seafood Guide here.

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