During a New Year's Eve dinner at an upscale Jacksonville restaurant, two words on the menu jumped out at me like a, well, a wild steelhead.

During a New Year's Eve dinner at an upscale Jacksonville restaurant, two words on the menu jumped out at me like a, well, a wild steelhead.

One of the entrees was listed as "Wild Steelhead," and a quick scoff sent my dining partners into a series of demands and begs not to be That Guy at dinner again.

When the waiter began extolling the virtues of this dish, I asked: "Is this a misprint or a misdemeanor?"

The waiter, chef and owner had no clue that wild steelhead are classified as a sport fish and not a food fish. Thus, wild steelhead cannot appear legally on any Oregon menu.

Tragically, that's just the start of the piscine misinformation regularly disseminated by restaurants and fish markets, which are wrought with confusing, misleading and just plain wrong descriptions of the flesh they sell, misleading consumers into thinking that what they're buying is somehow better than what it is.

In this restaurant's case, what holiday revelers thought was a highly prized filet of wild steelhead was most likely a pen-raised fish.

It certainly was not a steelhead born in freshwater that migrated to sea, but a rainbow trout stuck in some aquaculture facility and fed ground-up fish meal and a synthetic dye called Astaxanthin. The dye is used to turn the pasty-white flesh of farm-raised fish pink and red, which wouldn't be necessary if the fish had been eating its natural diet of insects and krill.

The term "wild" has become the most improperly used term associated with salmon. "Wild" is supposed to mean they are the progeny of naturally spawning salmon. It is meant to differentiate them from salmon bred and fed in hatcheries before they are released as smolts to head to sea with their wild half-brethren, where together they feed commercial fisheries that, in turn, feed you.

Typically, salmon labeled as wild really are just wild-caught. Maybe they should use the term "free range" for fish caught in the ocean without asserting whether their parents hooked up in a gravel riffle or had their eggs and milt mixed for them in a 5-gallon bucket.

And don't for a minute think hatchery-raised salmon and pen-raised salmon are remotely interchangeable. Though they're both bucket-spawners, any commonalities stop there.

Spring chinook are released from Cole Rivers Hatchery into the Rogue River as small as 11/4 ounces. They make up for their coddled birth by swimming 157 miles to the ocean, avoiding predators and eating real salmon food. When caught by a commercial fisherman as a typical 18-pound chinook, 99.6 percent of its body mass came from natural food.

A chinook that spent its life in a pen eating pellets wouldn't know the difference between a krill and a cantaloupe.

Grocery stores also are notorious for using salmon names interchangeably.

Fish labeled as "king salmon" are supposed to be what we in Oregon call chinook. The term "king" is common in Washington, Canada and Alaska, while chinook dominates in Oregon and California.

Then there's coho, which also are known as silver salmon. A totally different species.

A store in Ashland recently has been selling what it calls "wild Rogue King salmon," but that's terribly misleading on so many levels.

It's not a wild king or a wild chinook. It's not even wild-caught. They are filets of excess Rogue spring chinook salmon caught in the Cole Rivers hatchery collection pond and sold to a seafood company that, in turn, sells them locally.

One store even touts it as "sustainable."

Sustainable? Sure, as long as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers keeps cutting the $2.1 million annual check to run the place.

A Medford restaurant last year offered some Rogue chinook that the owner proudly said he got from a guy who caught it "in the river just seven miles from here."

That's not good.

The only chinook that can be sold must come through commercial fisheries that exist only in the ocean. There is no in-river commercial fishery on the Rogue, and no sport-caught fish can be sold at all in Oregon.

The sheepish owner promptly erased the item from his specials list, much to the delight of his employees, who got to eat the evidence.

These fishy misnomers are not relegated to salmon.

Take Pacific snapper, which exists on menus and in fish counters across Oregon. There is no such thing as Pacific snapper. They are most likely black rockfish.

Perhaps the greatest gaffe came earlier this year when an Ashland restaurant's menu bestowed the virtues of the Rogue River tilapia.


Tilapia are a group of about 100 kinds of freshwater fish grown commercially throughout the world and overcooked by generations of Oregonians. How could they possibly be confused as another run of wild fish in the Rogue?

It turns out the tilapia didn't come from the Rogue, but from an aquaculture facility near the town of Rogue River.

The restaurant since has wiped Rogue River tilapia off its menu.

Apparently, it wasn't sustainable.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com.