The Many Colors of King Salmon

Unveiling the Mystery Behind King Salmon Flesh Color

The thrill of reeling in a king or Chinook salmon is unparalleled — the line on your fishing rod screaming as the majestic creature fights against being caught. And while the joy of the catch is exhilarating, the anticipation of sharing the bounty with loved ones around the dinner table is equally exciting. King salmon, prized by sport anglers and revered as a delicacy, can surprise us with their different flesh colors – red, white, or even marbled. As an avid wild salmon consumer, I appreciate the unique texture and flavor of each color. However, my personal preference constantly evolves depending on the plate before me. Ideally, I would love to savor a small fillet of each color simultaneously to further explore their distinct tastes.

Most king salmon feature flesh that ranges from reddish-orange to pinkish-red. Interestingly, white-fleshed king salmon, once considered less desirable, now fetch a premium price in the market and at restaurants. Catching a white king is a stroke of luck, making their availability to both anglers and consumers highly variable.

Now, are white kings a different sub-species of Chinook salmon, or are they merely the same fish sporting a different hue? The truth is, despite their color, they are all the same species known scientifically as Onchorhynchus tshawytscha. These Pacific salmon, the largest of their kind, go by various local names, with “king” being the most common. The difference in flesh color stems from their unique genetic ability to metabolize carotenoids, naturally occurring pigments found in their diet of shrimp, krill, and crabs. These crustaceans are rich in astaxanthin, a carotenoid prevalent in marine life. A similar analogy would be the orange beta-carotene in carrots or the bright red lycopene in tomatoes. White-fleshed king salmon lack the genetic capacity to break down their food and store the red-orange carotene in their muscle cells. The marbled flesh occasionally found in king salmon results from their limited ability to metabolize carotene, creating a marbled appearance with reddish tones near the spine and whiter flesh near the belly.

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The trait responsible for the absence of red pigment is inherited by the offspring from their adult spawners. Metabolizing carotenoids is a dominant trait, hence the majority of king salmon possess red flesh. Strikingly, white kings primarily come from river systems spanning from the Fraser River in British Columbia to the Chilkat River in Southeast Alaska. According to biologists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, approximately 5 percent of the king population in this region carry the recessive trait for white flesh. However, some river systems within the Fraser River watershed boast nearly 100 percent white-fleshed kings.

Interestingly, some individuals claim they can predict a king salmon’s flesh color based on its behavior when caught. But the surest way to determine their color is when cleaning your daily catch.

Including wild salmon in your diet has proven health benefits. Studies reveal that red and white king salmon share similar compositions in terms of healthy lipids, moisture, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids — the “good” fats.

Seafood chefs often praise the melt-in-your-mouth flavor of white kings, but they don’t usually prepare them differently from the red-fleshed variety. Each fillet brings a sensational delicacy to the dinner plate. It’s worth noting that dining out may come at a premium when indulging in white or marbled king salmon due to their unpredictable and limited supply.

In conclusion, if you’re intrigued by the diverse colors and tastes of king salmon, I encourage you to obtain a fishing license and venture out to enjoy local sport fishing along the Pacific coast. Who knows? You might be the fortunate angler bringing home a stunning white king. Regardless of your fishing expedition’s outcome, cherish the experience, and keep supporting the sustainable practice of catching and consuming wild Alaska salmon.

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