Wild salmon has less fat and calories than farm-raised—here's how to tell if you're getting what you paid for.

Jill Waldbieser
August 20, 2018

You’ve probably heard of fish fraud—read a headline about one species being passed off as another, or how New York-based seafood distributor Sea to Table was mislabeling products—but would you know if it was happening to you?

You don’t have to be a marine biologist to notice the telltale signs—if you know what they are. We asked Anders Miller, manager and owner of Seattle’s renowned Pike Place Fish Company, to give us the lowdown on everyone’s favorite fish, salmon.

“The Northwest is known for wild salmon,” says Miller, who guesses he has 500 pounds of King salmon on display at the time we spoke. And, unfortunately, he adds, some retailers will try to get away with selling an inferior product for more money.

That’s not to say all farmed salmon is inferior. Some farms know what they’re doing and treat their fish well, but they generally aren’t the ones trying to pass it off as wild. Here, according to Miller, are five dead giveaways that the fish you’re buying is genuine.

It’s the right color.

Farmed salmon is lighter and more pink, while wild has a deeper reddish-orange hue. Farmed fish will also a lot more fatty marbling in its flesh—those wavy white lines—since they aren’t fighting against upstream currents like wild ones. In general, Miller says, any time you spot fillets that look too uniform and perfect in color, they’re most likely farmed.

It’s got a swimmer’s tail.

Looking at a whole fish makes spotter imposters even easier, especially if the fins are still attached. “Wild salmon have a nice fan-shaped tail,” Miller says. Farmed fish tend to have smaller tails and they may be ragged form getting nipped by other fish in overcrowded pens.

It’s in season.

Just like strawberries and asparagus, wild fish have a season, and anything you tend to find outside that timeframe is the equivalent of a winter tomato. Salmon run from mid-May through September (click here for a chart of when specific species such as coho, sockeye, and king make their appearance), so anything outside that window is likely to be farmed.

It’s identified by name.

If you’re ordering it at a restaurant, you can spot wild salmon even before you taste it—because the menu will say so. “Wild caught fish are a selling point, so if the description doesn’t say wild, 9 out of 10 times it’s farm-raised,” says Miller. There are also trusted brands, such as Copper River Salmon, that you can ask for by name. Pike Place actually has a list people can sign up for to be notified when salmon from the Copper River become available for purchase, the demand is that high.

The price is right.

Wild salmon is a case of getting what you pay for. If you see anyone selling King salmon incredibly cheap—say, less than $10 per pound—that’s a red flag says Miller. The good news is, that money is not only going toward a quality meal, but also funding small fisherman and efforts to ensure future sustainability.

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