Charlottesville chef to spotlight saving salmon habitat

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Bryan Szeliga (right), chef at Orzo Kitchen and Wine Bar Restaurant, and Paul Chirico compare wild-caught salmon with a farmed steak. Szeliga is spearheading the restaurant’s participation in a national conservation campaign aimed at raising awareness of the need to protect a key salmon spawning ground in Alaska. Photo by John Robinson.

More than 4,000 miles away in Bristol Bay, Alaska, a Canadian mining company has been seeking the go-ahead to create North America’s biggest open-pit mine in a search for gold and copper. But the bay is also the site of the world’s largest sockeye salmon harvest. Forty million of the fish come home to the bay in the crook of the Alaskan Peninsula each year to spawn in their native rivers. The area supplies half the sockeye salmon consumed worldwide and supports 12,000 fishing-related jobs.

That’s why Bryan Szeliga, chef at Orzo Kitchen and Wine Bar Restaurant on West Main Street, is working with more than 50 other restaurants nationwide in a “Savor Bristol Bay” event, in which restaurants serve dishes featuring Bristol Bay salmon in order to open up the conversation and raise awareness about the issue of conservation on the far-off coast.
“Copper affects the way salmon smells, and they smell to get back to their breeding ground,” Szeliga said. Mine wastewater containing traces of copper could end up in the bay, many worry, and threaten the sustainability of the salmon population.

The Environmental Protection Agency is currently working on a Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment to analyze how future mining would affect the area, and a final assessment is set to be released in November.

So why should it matter to Virginians? For starters, the salmon coming out of Bristol Bay is the best nature has to offer, Szeliga said—better tasting and better for you than farmed Atlantic fish. And while eating Bristol Bay sockeye salmon in order to save the fish may seem counterintuitive, the argument has merit, Szeliga said.

“In this case, I believe the expression ‘voting with your fork’ really applies,” Szeliga said. “If people eat Bristol Bay salmon, it’s going to raise awareness. People will be eating a domestic, sustainable, wild product.”

It’s already happening with some seafood products, he said.

“If chefs in Alaska, Portland, and San Francisco are buying soft-shell crab to support the ecosystem in the Chesapeake Bay, we can support our West Coast counterparts,” Szeliga said. “People forget about the effects things have so far away, but it affects so many people and livelihoods.”

Szeliga said if Bristol Bay is mined and the sockeye fish are not available to chefs and consumers anymore, Americans will have to get their wild salmon from even further away—Russia, home to the next largest wild salmon fishery. Importing from overseas would raise more issues about cost and transportation.

Much of the discussion of sustainability in our food systems focuses on eating local. But Szeliga and others are asking people to take a step back, and cast a wider net.

“What is ‘sustainable’ and ‘local?’” he asked. “Is it a state line? One hundred miles? What makes something local, and does that outweigh a livelihood and anthropology?”
Join the movement. Orzo Kitchen and Wine Bar will be serving lunch specials with Bristol Bay salmon from Monday, June 23 through Saturday, June 28.—Ana Mir

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