Learn about the following species groups (including their most common members, as well as purchasing, storage and cooking information), or select a specific species from the species list on the right.
These natives of the northern hemisphere were originally introduced to Australia for sports fishing in the 19th century. A couple have now become significant aquaculture species and are among the most popular fish in restaurants and home kitchens. The Salmonidae family, to which they belong, is a very unusual one, often able to live in both freshwater and saltwater; while some (usually called trout) live in rivers and lakes, many (usually called salmon) spend much of their lives at sea, returning to freshwater to spawn. All are predators, feeding largely on small crustaceans (which contain carotenoid pigments that cause them to turn red when cooked). Ingesting these pigments gives the salmon’s flesh its typical pink-orange colour (this is replicated in farmed fish by mixing carotenoid pigments into the feed).
In the wild, salmon often travel up to 4,000km to feeding grounds before returning to the river of their birth to lay and fertilise their eggs, a feat which has impressed people throughout history. In Scotland, where wild salmon are particularly revered, they are known as ‘The Fish’ and the spectacle of hundreds of them swimming against the flow of the river and jumping up waterfalls has become a popular annual tourist attraction, while the Ancient Romans called the fish “salar”, possibly from the Latin “salio” meaning “to leap”.
While salmon were once so abundant in Europe that laws forbade employers feeding it to their apprentices more than three times a week, by the beginning of the 20th century the damming and pollution of rivers led to such a decline in fish populations that it became an expensive luxury. In the early 1970s sea cages began to be used in Norway and Scotland for raising Atlantic salmon, and now more than 1.5 million tonnes of various species of salmon are produced annually worldwide, making it again a popular and affordable fish.
The three main commercial types of Salmonidae, Atlantic salmon and trout (Salmo), Pacific salmon and trout (Oncorhynchus) and charr/char (Salvelinus), have been introduced to Australia.
Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar) is native to European and North American rivers draining into the north Atlantic. It was introduced to Australia, unsuccessfully, in the 1860s and reintroduced a century later, with aquaculture beginning in earnest in the mid-1980s and Tasmania producing 32,000 tonnes/year by 2010. Eggs are hatched and reared in freshwater until the fish reach 70-100g, when they’re transferred to sea cages in saltwater or estuaries, mainly in southeastern Tasmania, until they’re harvested at 24-32 months old. There are some freshwater farms in inland Victoria, primarily supplying roe, as well as stock in Victoria’s Rubicon and Latrobe Rivers and Lake Jindabyne and Khancoban Dam in NSW, which are regularly restocked from hatchery-reared fish.
Chinook Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), a native of the Pacific Ocean around the coasts of western North America and northeastern Asia (notably Japan and Russia), was introduced to Australia in the 1870s. Wild stocks are limited to Lake Purrumbete and Lake Bullen Merri in southwestern Victoria and are replenished annually from hatchery-raised stock. Introduced to New Zealand in the early 1900s, it has been farmed in sea cages in the Marlborough Sounds since the 1980s and New Zealand is now the world’s major supplier of this species, marketing it as ‘king salmon’. It is hatched in freshwater, transferred to sea cages after 1 year and harvested at 19-31 months old. The life cycle of the farmed fish is similar to that of farmed Atlantic salmon, though it may be transferred to saltwater earlier. It looks very similar to Atlantic salmon, but is slightly paler with a smaller tail.
Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) is a sea-going native of streams, rivers and lakes draining into the Pacific Ocean around North America and Siberia. Introduced in the 1890s, it’s now the main commercially-farmed trout in Australia. Raised in freshwater it’s typically sold as a plate-sized fish and is popular smoked, but when grown out in sea cages it reaches a similar size to Atlantic salmon and is marketed as 'ocean trout'. Self-sustaining populations are found in NSW (in upland streams west of the Great Diving Range and in dams of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme), Victoria, Tasmania, SA and WA, but are only caught recreationally. It usually has a pink-orange patch on the gill cover, which becomes a broad stripe along the middle of the sides.
Other members of the Salmonidae family found in Australia include:
Brown Trout (Salmo trutta), sea-going natives of streams, rivers and lakes draining into the northern Atlantic Ocean and closely-related to Atlantic salmon, were introduced to Australia in the 1860s. Self-sustaining populations are now relatively widespread in cool streams of southern Australia, west of the Great Dividing Range, from northern NSW to Victoria and Tasmania, with hatchery-reared fish also released into streams, rivers, lakes and dams in cooler parts of Victoria, around Adelaide and in southwestern WA. They have variable skin colouring depending on their habitat and age, ranging from pale gold to olive or brown; the dark spots along their sides, often reddish below the midline, usually have distinctive pale halos, which, along with their larger mouth, distinguish them from Atlantic salmon. Very little brown trout is farmed commercially and wild stocks are only caught recreationally.
Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) is actually a charr, distinguished from salmon and trout by its brighter colouring and the distinctive white edges to its lower fins. Native to the east coast of North America, it was introduced to Tasmania in the early 1900s and is found there as well as in Lake Jindabyne (NSW) and a few streams and lakes in SA. Farmed in sea cages in Macquarie Harbour in southwestern Tasmania, since around 2005, it’s marketed as 'saltwater charr'. Only available from November-February, it has the reddest flesh of all farmed Salmonids in Australia.
Saltwater reared fish are sold whole, in cutlet, steak and fillet forms, fresh, smoked and cured as gravlax; their bright orange roe is also widely available. In whole fish look for lustrous skin with a slippery, mucilaginous coating, firm flesh, and a pleasant, fresh smell. In cutlets, steaks and fillets, look for pink-orange, firm, lustrous, moist flesh without any brown markings or oozing water and with a pleasant fresh smell; always buy sashimi-grade fish if serving it raw or rare. Freshwater-reared rainbow trout are mainly sold whole, fresh or smoked.
Make sure whole fish is gilled, gutted and cleaned thoroughly. Lay whole fish, fillets, cutlets and steaks in a single layer on a plate and cover with plastic wrap or place in an airtight container. Refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 3 months below -18ºC. Fish that has been smoked or made into gravlax has generally only been lightly cured to enhance flavour, not strongly enough to act as a preservative, and so should not be treated as a preserved food. Sashimi-grade fish should be either eaten within 24 hours of purchase or cooked.
Salmon, trout and charr are versatile; they can be served hot or cold, steamed, poached, pan-fried, stir-fried, baked, braised, grilled, barbecued, smoked, cured or raw (sashimi). The flesh of saltwater-reared fish is an appealing pinky-orange, with a richer flavour and firmer texture than that of smaller, freshwater-reared fish, the colour of which ranges from white to orange depending on diet. The flesh has good gelling characteristics and works well in mousseline, fish cakes, patés, terrines or rillettes. The firm flesh of larger fish holds together well in curries and casseroles and can be cubed for kebabs.
Saltwater-reared fish are popular raw in preparations from Japanese sashimi to Italian crudo or finely chopped for tartare, as well as being hot- or cold- smoked or cured with salt, sugar and herbs for Scandinavian gravlax. It is best served at least slightly rare or it can be dry, and is often served with creamy or buttery sauces to counter this tendency; it stays very moist when cooked at a low temperature so that the protein sets but remains glassy. Whole poached salmon, served hot or cold, is a traditional centrepiece for festive buffets.
* Australian salmon (Arripis trutta) is not a member of the Salmonidae family, nor are coral trouts (which are rockcods).