The calendar says December, New Zealand summer, and the festive season. Time for gatherings with friends and family, and some special New Zealand food. And it was a visit, last Christmas Eve, to an impressive salmon farm set in the stunning Mackenzie country, that made us think about where our salmon comes from.
It was a treat then to feed the fish in the view of a magnificent Aoraki Mt Cook, and then to buy some to enjoy, a little further down the road, with festive celebrations.
That experience set us to thinking about New Zealand salmon, freshwater and marine. And here’s what we found out.
Our salmon is chinook
Salmon is not a fish that is native to New Zealand waters. We have read that it was first brought here from the late 1800s: European settlers introduced fish of the Salmonidae family (trout and salmon) to New Zealand’s lakes and rivers, so they could fish them for sport. Then, in the early 1900s, salmon were introduced from California river sources, and released into a tributary of the South Island’s Waitaki River.
And so it is the chinook (or king) salmon that we farm in New Zealand, even though it is native to the north-west coast of North America and north-east Asia.
New Zealand is the only place in the world where king salmon have become established successfully outside their natural range. And New Zealand is the world's largest producer: about 70% of it is farmed here. (Most salmon farmed around the world are atlantic salmon.) This means we make up about 1% of world salmon production. That’s quite a lot of fish.
Our farms are marine and freshwater
New Zealand’s salmon production comes from marine farms in the Marlborough Sounds and Stewart Island, and a little in Akaroa.
A very small amount comes from freshwater farms in the South Island’s Mackenzie Basin hydro canals. This is the world’s only freshwater farmed king salmon. And it was this salmon we visited last Christmas Eve.
The salmon life cycle, out in the wild, is a story in itself. The female and male pair up, and the female digs in a gravel stream bed and lays eggs. The male deposits milt to fertilise. Eggs hatch into fry, with yolk sacs attached, in spring. The fry emerge from the river gravels, after the yolk sac is used up. They spend a few months swimming downstream, and reach the sea in summer. There they feed on small fish and crustaceans, and grow to adult. Around three years of age, they swim upstream in large numbers to spawn in the upper reaches of rivers. And, after spawning, all adults then die.
Of course, things are different in the farming process.
The freshwater farms operate hatcheries and release to farms, located in the freshwater canals that connect South Island mountain lakes, Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki, at the foot of Mt Cook. The salmon are fed and reared, until they are big enough to be harvested. And the strong flowing currents continually flush the farms, ensuring high quality water.
Freshwater salmon can take up to three years to size. Then they are exported, but remain readily available around New Zealand. Half of all salmon farmed in New Zealand is eaten locally.
Our fish is delicious
We are eating an increasing amount of salmon here. And it is really good for you. The big story of course is omega 3, and salmon contains a raft of vitamins and minerals. And it is delicious.
An old favourite way with salmon is on a toasted bagel, with cream cheese, capers and fresh herbs. And it is hard to beat a summer salmon salad. But, for a special treat and festive salmon idea, click here.