Rogue River spring chinook can be bagged this week without launching a boat or baiting a hook.
Local grocers and meat markets are selling excess, high-grade Cole Rivers Hatchery salmon, purchased by Ocean Beauty Seafoods. Shoppers can find the fish at stores from Eagle Point to Ashland for prices lower than almost any other "wild" salmon, say retailers.
"It's saving you three bucks a pound," says Cameron Callahan, co-owner of The Butcher Shop in Eagle point, where the salmon fillets sold for $11.99 per pound, steaks for $9.99 per pound, two weeks ago.
The hatchery sells excess stock to the highest bidder almost every year, based on the strength of the salmon run, says manager David Pease. Ocean Beauty, a Seattle company with a Medford distributor, won this year's contract, paying $30 per fish, he says. Sale of the salmon helps to pay for fishery management, he adds.
The deal stands to put tens of thousands of pounds of Rogue River chinook in Rogue Valley stores, says Jim Godin, Ocean Beauty sales manager, adding that this was his company's first bid for Cole Rivers during his 17 years in Medford. Previously, most of the hatchery's excess stock was distributed by another wholesaler in bigger cities from Portland north.
"They're very well-known fish in the Northwest ... so everybody wants 'em."
In addition to The Butcher Shop, says Godin, the salmon were sold to Ashland Food Co-op, Food 4 Less and Sherm's Thunderbird Market in Medford, some Ray's Food Place locations and several local restaurants, including The Jacksonville Inn, The Wharf in Medford, and Beasy's on the Creek and Omar's in Ashland.
"A lot of restaurants put it on their fresh (specials) sheet," says Godin.
About 1,500 salmon, estimated at 14 pounds apiece, were slated for harvest last week at Cole Rivers. That adds to the initial June harvest of 700 fish, says Pease. The hatchery first separates wild salmon and any hatchery-born fish needed for its brood before transferring the excess hatchery stock to holding ponds. An electric shock stuns the fish, so they can be handled and put on ice for transport.
"We control it all the way through," says Godin.
Ocean Beauty trucks the salmon to Portland for processing and distribution throughout the Pacific Northwest, says Godin. Rogue Valley deliveries were planned for last Friday and Monday with the final load due today, he says.
"Some of this will probably be frozen."
While the fresh fish will keep on ice for about a week, it usually exits stores much quicker. Callahan says he sold 300 pounds in two days by advertising it as "wild Rogue River salmon."
"That's all it took."
The fish, says Pease, are not wild by the hatchery's definition. Consumers, however, are likely to see it labeled as "wild" salmon and even "king salmon," rather than chinook, the moniker more commonly used in Oregon.
Godin points out that the fish, which spend the majority of their lives in the Pacific Ocean before returning to the river to spawn are not in league with "farmed" fish raised to maturity in ponds or sea pens. Callahan agrees, calling the salmon the "wildest farm-raised" fish available.
Terminology aside, says Godin, it's priced at "well below" market value, compared with Columbia River salmon. The possibility "absolutely" exists, he adds, that Ocean Beauty could win the contract again in coming years, bringing another boon to Rogue Valley customers.
"We know how feasible it is, and we want that fish."
Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email email@example.com.