Meet the people and the town behind the Copper River salmon’s wild success story.
STORY BY MEGAN HILL
The floatplane dips a wing toward the glacier, its serrated crevasses glowing a cold blue. We U-turn over the ice fins, and the massive 300-mile-wide fan of silt and gray-green threads of water forming the mouth of the Copper River comes into view. Some 500 boats are sprinkled throughout the river’s opening at the Gulf of Alaska, hauling in the first salmon of the year.
It’s opening day on the Copper River, one of the country’s most celebrated fisheries. Soon, the salmon — said to be the best-tasting in the world — will hit restaurants and stores around the West Coast and beyond, drawing diners willing to pay premium prices for this uniquely fatty, rich fish.
The story behind the fish has as much to do with the people involved in catching and marketing it as it does its wild origins. And Seattle plays a central role in that story.
A Salmon Town
The small town of Cordova is carved out of the dramatic coastal Alaskan landscape, where hulking mountains harbor enormous glaciers. Though it’s only about 145 miles as the crow flies from Anchorage, Cordova is reachable only by boat or plane, hemmed in by impenetrable alpine terrain, the Gulf of Alaska, and Prince William Sound. Only about 2,500 people call Cordova home, and many of them have ties to the fishing industry.
Cordova’s history has always been connected to the water. The area’s native Eyak people long sustained a population from the salmon run, and the town’s modern economy is heavily dependent on the seafood industry. Leading up to the opener every year, the town has salmon fever: Locals trade stories of catching their subsistence allotment, fishers ready their boats, and there’s an air of anticipation. Salmon is Cordova’s lifeblood.
A Marketing Genius
These days, Copper River salmon commands $50 to $60 per pound in most stores, and between $30 to $60 a plate at Seattle restaurants. But this hasn’t always been the case.
In 1983, Seattle-based seafood consultant and marketing guru Jon Rowley — who died in October 2017 — hit upon a genius idea and helped usher in an epic success story that’s now 35 years running.
It’s hard to imagine now, but before Jon came along, Copper River salmon was packaged in cans. Jon saw untapped potential in the fresh fish, handled properly and flown quickly out of Cordova. He showed the fishers how to handle their catches carefully, bleed them immediately, and ice them to prevent rigor mortis — all steps to preserve a fish that Jon called the best-tasting in the world and to help the fishers command a higher price for their catches. Then, he marketed it to the hilt, encouraging a competition among Seattle restaurants to see which could be the first to offer Copper River salmon on their menus each year. It’s a practice that lives on today.
Jon personally brought hundreds of pounds of salmon down from Cordova that first year, telling the story of the fish in each restaurant he sold it to. Seattle was hooked. Today, Copper River salmon is one of the few seafood items whose origins are always name-dropped on menus, and it’s a household name throughout the Northwest.
Skeptics argue this salmon is not worth the hefty price tag, that it’s all a marketing ploy. But the diners who flock to buy it say otherwise.
“Copper River salmon are biologically different than other salmon,” explains Kinsey Justa, program coordinator for the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association, a fisher-funded nonprofit established in 2005 that helps keep the fish’s profile elevated to the national treasure status.
To prepare for its swim up the Copper River’s turbid, glacially-fed waters that originate deep in the Wrangell Mountains and flow 290 winding miles to the Gulf of Alaska, these fish pack on a higher fat content than other salmon. Their trademark bright-red flesh practically glows, and the flavor is said to possess an equal incandescence.
The Thrill of Opening Day
It’s two days before the opening of the Copper River salmon season, and the harbor is filled with hundreds of boats. Fishers tote coolers and grocery bags down the steep ramps, loading up on food and supplies for the coming days. Others repair their 900-foot-long nets, which are stretched across the docks like lace. A trio of sea otters lazes about in the harbor, wet bellies facing skyward.
Each May, as the 540 permit-holding Copper River commercial fishers ready their nets and boats, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game heads upriver to count the number of fish making the journey from the open ocean to spawn. That count informs the exact date of the season opener and how long the first day of fishing will last — usually between 12 and 24 hours.
These officials continue monitoring the minimum escapement levels — the number of fish that must make it upriver to spawn, rather than being caught for food. They use data from the upriver measurements and from the opening day’s commercial catch to determine the next opener, rolling out successive windows for commercial fishing throughout a five-month season that starts with king salmon, moves to sockeye, and finishes with coho.
For the fishers, the staggered openers mean they must constantly be at the ready — and do a lot of waiting. Boats leave the Cordova harbor in droves the night before an opener, turning the once-packed docks into a ghost town. Fishers sleep on their boats so they can drop their nets first thing in the morning, and they work nonstop throughout the opener to haul in fish. For shorter openers, fish are iced on the boats and brought in at the end of the fishing period; longer openers see “tender boats” ferrying catches back to town to be processed. In either case, Copper River salmon land on the plates of diners a mere 48 hours after being hauled out of the water.
Copper River salmon fishers use small, 30-foot jet boats, outfitted with a massive set of prongs at the bow. These bowpickers haul in the gillnets, one of the most environmentally friendly forms of commercial fishing because the net’s holes, customized just for the salmon, nab the fish by the gills, letting other critters filter past.
“Gillnetting is an artisanal form of fishing,” Kinsey says. “It’s been done the same way in this region for 130 years.” All 540 fishers are independent business owners and most are Alaska-born and based in Cordova. Many come from a long line of commercial fishers.
Each boat has only one or two fishers aboard, and they handle every fish individually as the nets are winched back on deck. The salmon are immediately bled and iced, just as Jon Rowley instructed 35 years ago.
Kinsey explains that there are plenty of special things about the Copper River beyond the good eating. The river is one of the most intact watersheds in the world, meaning it hasn’t been hampered by development or environmental degradation from mining, oil drilling, or other human interference. It isn’t dammed, running completely unimpeded from its deep wilderness origins.
The Copper River is one of the first fisheries to open each spring, as Alaska starts to emerge from a long winter. That means the beginning of a cherished annual tradition among Alaskans, who have subsistence fishing rights that are uncommonly balanced with those of commercial interests. The oversight and careful monitoring of fishing activities and fish populations is so central to the Alaskan identity that sustainability is written into the state constitution.
That excitement is palpable; come the season opener, salmon is all anyone in Cordova can talk about.
“Salmon is really important in Alaskan culture, perhaps more than anywhere else,” Kinsey says. “The value of our wild salmon is linked intrinsically to what it means to be an Alaskan.”
The First Fish
It’s midnight at the Merle K. (Mudhole) Smith Airport, a miniscule building surrounded by delta sand and mountains. An Alaska Airlines plane is being loaded with 22,000 pounds of fish, bound for Seattle — the first in a wave of many tens of thousands of pounds to come. A steady rain patters at the tarmac, and a gaggle of Cordova citizens — perhaps the few not out fishing or working at the processing plants — are gathered to see their town’s most famous residents off. The flight departs at 2:30 a.m. under a darkened sky.
By 6:30 a.m., the plane touches down in Seattle, and the pilot carries the largest, most becoming Copper River king, caught on opening day, down a red carpet. Dozens of reporters and dignitaries look on, snapping photos and cheering the arrival of the prized catch. The fish is then filleted in front of news cameras and cooked in a competition among three prominent chefs, whose dishes are judged by audience members.
And the 22,000 pounds of fish on the plane are unloaded, bound for restaurants throughout the area, like Elliott’s Oyster House, Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar, Ray’s Boathouse, Wild Ginger, Lark, Spinasse, Artusi, and Ivar’s restaurants. Gradually, the rest of the country will receive salmon from Cordova, too.
As Seattleites dig into the first Copper River salmon of the season, fishers like Hayley Hoover are getting ready for the next opener. She’s likely readying her boat, F/V Obsidian — which she bought in her early 20s from her father and has piloted alone for four years — and its cramped, spartan cabin, outfitted with a small stove, a handful of groceries, and a small nook stuffed with a sleeping bag, for her next foray on the delta.
It’s hard work, gillnetting on the Copper. The Coastal Alaska weather can be brutal, the hours are long, and the job is messy. As one of just 11 women on the river, Hayley fields the occasional judgmental comment from her male counterparts — despite her reputation as one of the best in the business. But she comes back, year after year, to help bring Copper River salmon to plates all around the country. Her reasoning speaks to the heart of Alaskan culture and the value of this wild river.
“Having your net loaded with Copper River salmon,” Hayley says. “There’s nothing like it.”
Megan Hill freelances for a number of food and travel publications. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying the beauty of the Pacific Northwest via sailboat or hiking trail.