California’s 2023 salmon fishing season is over. But wild salmon, always wildly popular with restaurant goers, will still find its way onto Bay Area menus this year.
It’s a matter of when, from where and – perhaps most importantly for consumers – at what price?
After reading the news this week, Mark Matulich of family-owned Steamers Grillhouse, a fixture in Los Gatos for over 40 years, reached out to his seafood suppliers.
“If we get wild king salmon, it has to come from Oregon, Washington or Alaska,” he said. And once additional shipping and handling costs are factored in, he expects “a significant increase in the price of what we can bring to the table.”
Fabrice Poigin, culinary director of King’s Seafood restaurants in Southern California and of Valley Fair in Santa Clara, remains confident that he can deliver what guests want. “We will be able to ship wild salmon all season anyway, as most of our wild salmon comes from Washington and Alaska.”
However, he said, “This is terrible news for our local salmon fishermen.”
With salmon numbers dwindling after the past three drought years, the Pacific Fishery Management Council has recommended banning all commercial or sport salmon fishing off California until April 2024 at the earliest. The season would normally start around April 1. This year’s cancellation is the first since 2008-2009, and those were the first cancellations since commercial salmon fishing began in 1848, before the Gold Rush, according to the Pacific Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.
The financial loss to the fishing industry and related businesses is estimated at more than $1 billion.
“It’s definitely going to be tough,” said Cody Reed of Reed Family Fisheries in the Port of Santa Cruz, noting that they’d already taken a hit with the late start of Dungeness crab season. “We can’t fish and our customers aren’t allowed to eat California king salmon.” He will switch to focus on other fisheries such as albacore tuna and sablefish.
As for restaurants, they will be able to minimize the impact by introducing diners to other fish and by selling wild Atlantic salmon, wild Northwest salmon and farmed salmon instead of California salmon.
Sushi and poke lovers, for example, should see little change in their favorite rolls and bowls, according to South Bay restaurateur “Sushi Randy” Musterer. Many Bay Area sushi restaurants already serve farmed salmon to maintain consistency, said Musterer, owner of Sushi Confidential restaurants in San Jose, Campbell and Morgan Hill.
Despite the name of the California Fish Grill, the lack of a California season may not even have much effect on that fast-casual chain, which has locations in Walnut Creek, El Cerrito, San Mateo, and San Jose. On its website, the company claims it only serves seafood that has been rated “Best Choice or Good Alternative” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program or is Eco-certified by a third party. The sockeye salmon on the menu is caught wild in Alaska using gill nets. The farmed Atlantic salmon comes from marine nets in Norway, Canada and Chile.
Rob Francis, executive chef of the Aqui restaurants, said he has seen a link between the price of sustainably farmed salmon, which his kitchens use, and wild salmon. “Prices on the farm go up a bit when the game season ends or aren’t very strong” and go down a bit when the game season is strong, he said.
Back in Los Gatos, when it’s not California salmon season, the Steamers restaurant cooks what Matulich calls high-quality, organic salmon raised in an open-ocean farm near British Columbia—currently an Asian preparation of barbecue glaze with wasabi cream. When he can source wild salmon from the north, he will likely offer both wild and farmed salmon on the menu to give customers a choice of how much they want to pay.
“It’s a matter of waiting for Oregon and Washington,” he said. “Until then, we’re all in the same boat.”