Fish Talk: Wild Alaskan Salmon - The Color Story

Fish Talk: Wild Alaskan Salmon - The Color Story

Wild Alaskan Salmon - The Color Story

One of the most obvious ways you can begin to understand and appreciate the life your salmon lived while ranging far and wide in the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean is to simply look at the color of its meat. Our artisanal fleet of commercial trollers use a few different tools and techniques that have been handed down by previous generations to catch the Wild Alaskan Salmon we all love. It is the beginning of the carefully orchestrated process that we here at Catch Sitka conduct to bring this unique salmon bounty directly to your plate. 

The basic life cycle of a wild Alaskan Salmon is well known, but did you know you can actually learn about its life by looking at it when you take it out of the freezer? Those ocean-caught salmon, plucked one-by-one at the peak of their nutritional value from the frigid waters of the Gulf of Alaska, reflect their individual story in the way they present themselves on your table.  

Each species of wild Alaskan Salmon has a slightly different diet. While they all are spawned by the most dedicated of parents and leave their natal streams to develop and grow into the majestic chrome-sided missiles we imagine leaping up waterfalls while dodging hungry bears, there are differences in the nutritional base each fish takes advantage of while at sea. It is these differences that affect the color of the Catch Sitka Salmon you receive in your box and turn into a healthy meal for your family.  

From Ruby Red to Ivory White

We have always loved the different colors that each species of salmon show on our plates. From a deep red sockeye to an “ivory” white king, it is one of the things that make choosing Wild Alaskan Salmon as a big part of our family’s meals so interesting. But what causes such a wide variety of flesh color?

“You are what you eat”

The color of Wild Alaskan Salmon flesh is determined primarily by the amount of shrimp and krill (tiny, pelagic crustaceans) they and their prey have eaten. The shrimp and krill contain carotenoids, a natural compound that gives their shells their pink and orange coloring. The more of this natural compound a salmon consumes through its life cycle, the more colorful its flesh will be.  

Sockeye, for example, eat krill almost exclusively and have a consistently red-orange flesh.  Coho are also very consistently orange, primarily due to their diet of krill and the small fish and other invertebrates that feed on those krill. Wild King salmon, on the other hand, have a wide variety of flesh colors ranging from a deep red-orange to pure white.  

The white-fleshed king, known as “ivory king” in the fish markets and fine dining establishments, is the result of a fairly rare genetic trait that prevents the flesh from taking on the color the carotenoids present in the food it eats. Many of us who enjoy king salmon regularly (a definite benefit to living the Southeast Alaskan lifestyle!) see ivory king as a real treat for its usually extremely high fat content and mild flavor. 

Factory fish coloring dyes

Farmed fish have a different story. Without access to the magnificent nutritional variety and bounty of the open ocean, the farmed salmon relies on an automatic timer to spread highly processed pellets into the densely packed fish pens. These pellets contain little of what you’d expect, and virtually none of what wild salmon eat. Soy beans, wheat, maize and broad beans typically make up 75% of the pelleted food. The other 25% are the bare minimum of what salmon need to survive – ocean-based proteins and oils derived from fish products not fit for human consumption.  

Because very little of the penned salmon food is derived from the food Wild Alaskan Salmon eat, the flesh of the farmed salmon is nothing like its wild cousins (this would be like feeding a beef steer a diet of 75% fish and 25% alfalfa – I can imagine the resulting steak would have a distinctly off-putting flavor).  It does not contain the ocean’s natural variety and abundance of nutrients that are passed on to the seafood enthusiast, but rather a shallow assortment of nutrients that are derived from highly engineered GMO seed stock subjected to several industrial-scale chemical applications (RoundUp, etc.) to bring the feed to maturity.  Interestingly, the flesh of farmed salmon is naturally gray – which was a very large problem for the salmon farm operators that tried to convince some consumers it was just as good as Wild Alaskan Salmon.  Their solution?  The SalmoFan!


This tool is a color chart provided by the chemical feed producers to allow a salmon farm operator to choose the color of their salmon flesh product. It basically relates to the amount of the chemical additive “astaxanthin” that is present in the processed food given to the penned fish. The SalmoFan operates much the same as the color sample wall at your local home improvement store: you would compare colors on the provided chart and decide on the colors you want to paint your walls. You then take your selected colors to the technician at the paint desk, and they mix up a variety of chemicals and pigments into the base color to give you exactly what you want! 

It is a chemical engineering masterpiece, and this same idea is applied to salmon feed. The commercial farm operator chooses the color of the flesh he or she feels will be the most marketable, and then asks the feed producer to mix in the precise amount of the chemical astaxanthin to the GMO food base to achieve this result. No variance, no risk, no chance of mother nature throwing these commercial farms a curve ball with a color their marketing predicts wouldn’t sell. They end up with a truckload of uniformly colored pieces of salmon for the unsuspecting consumer to take home and cook up.  

This seemed very misleading to consumer advocates. After much wrangling with the farmed salmon industry, the farms were finally forced to label all of their products with “Color Added” to at least warn a consumer they were about to buy a chemically engineered piece of flesh to feed their families. Sadly, most people don’t know what this means and don’t understand the process it is meant to describe. In addition, in the US, commercial food producers are not required to label anything as a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO), or describe the feed given to farmed fish and animals as such.

It is relatively easy, however, to avoid this chemically-altered farmed salmon, and here at Catch Sitka we strive to make it easier in part by educating the consumer. If you buy Wild Alaskan Salmon, you don’t have to worry about any artificial coloring, GMO-based feed, etc. You get to enjoy each salmon’s unique color for what it is – a visual clue of the years a wild salmon spent cruising the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean, building a healthy natural body full of the ocean’s nutrients as salmon have done for millennia.   They bring this bounty to our shores, where in partnership with artisanal fishing families, we at Catch Sitka work tirelessly to bring it to your plate.


 Written by Hans Olsen F/V Alaska Bounty

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