Back to February 12
The next day, February 11, we met the man who was to be our guide for the rest of our trip, a Canterburian by the name of Kevin Parish.
Canterbury is the region of New Zealand most similar to England, by all accounts that I’ve heard. Its largest city, Christchurch, also is the largest city on the South Island.
Kevin flew up to Nelson on Monday morning to meet us at New Zealand King Salmon, the largest producer and supplier of farm-raised king salmon in the world.
Now I thought that was interesting, because I had no idea that king salmon was farm-raised. To my knowledge, all of the farm-raised salmon in North America is Atlantic salmon, and king is one of the five species of the Pacific Northwest (the others are sockeye, coho, chum and pink). [I have since learned that king salmon also is being farm-raised in British Columbia].
Bill King, the McCormick & Schmick’s guy who was my co-traveler on this trip — and who to my knowledge is not related either to king salmons nor to Bill McCormick, the restaurant chain’s co-founder and, perhaps not uncoincidentally, the current US ambassador to New Zealand — had told me earlier that this year’s season for wild Pacific salmon was looking bleak. Fishing for salmon on the continental U.S. West Coast and perhaps well into Canada might be severely restricted due to low numbers of fish. The imminently sustainable salmon fisheries of Alaska seem to be doing fine, however. Still, the possible dearth of wild salmon in North America might make the farm-raised kings of New Zealand particularly appealing this year.
The folks at King Salmon told us that their species of choice was harder to raise in farms than Atlantic Salmon because it was more delicate, and thus more difficult to harvest, and because its feed-to-bodyweight conversion ratio (1.6-1.7) was higher. It’s also harder to process because it can’t be pin-boned by machine.
Their particular breed originated as wild New Zealand kings, which were brought from the American West Coast, probably for sport fishing. Now they spend about a year in a hatchery and then, when they reach a weight of about 150 grams (a third of a pound, more or less), they are transferred to pens spread out in waters around New Zealand, far enough away from each other that their keepers don’t need to treat them with antibiotics or vaccines because they’re not near enough to other fish farms to risk infection. The salmon spend between 12 and 18 months there.
When it’s time to harvest the fish, they are sedated by having oil of clove poured into the water. Then they are caused to flow into another area in which carbon dioxide is pumped into the water, stopping their brain function, although their hearts continue to beat. Then the fish are harvested one at a time, their gills cut so they bleed out. They are gilled and gutted through the night and then processed.
The feed, like much farm-raised fish feed, comes from South America and is mostly fish protein, although New Zealand King Salmon is experimenting with using vegetable oils and vegetable proteins. But they don’t expect more than half of the oil to be vegetable oil, because any more than that and the salmon run the risk of having a lower content of those heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids that everybody loves.
They harvest about 6000 metric tons of salmon annually at individual gilled-and-gutted body weights between 3.5 and 4 kilos (so, 7.7 to 8.8 pounds). (For gross body weight, add 12 percent).
Just under half of that is exported, mostly to Japan, but about 10 percent of the harvest goes to the United States, mostly fresh-chilled.
The company breeds some fish to grow quickly and others to grow slowly, so they have continual harvest.
Some of the fish are sent whole to Christchurch for export, but those that are to be further processed rest for a day to go through rigor mortis.
Then they are steamed for a few seconds to kill bacteria and loosen the skin. Next they are brined or dry-cured with salt and sugar, depending on what their customers want, for as long as their customers want, and then they’re smoked, filleted and further processed.
Excess fingerlings are sold as food for penguins, orcas and other attractions at zoos, aquariums etc.
The existence of local, farm-raised salmon apparently has had a fairly dramatic effect on dining habits of New Zealanders, just as it has on Americans. In both countries salmon used to be a luxury, and now it’s an everyday food.
In fact, the NZ King Salmon folks told me that they are enjoying domestic growth of 20 percent annually. Their output is growing by just 10 percent, so they are starting to focus more on value-added stuff.
This is the obligatory hairnet photo that people very much enjoy taking when visitors tour their processing plants. Pictured here are me, Nicola Mitchell and Tanya from New Zealand King Salmon.