SEATTLE — Eight years ago, while on a flight from Cordova to Anchorage, my friendly seatmate asked me whether I have ever tried Copper River salmon. I knew of different species of salmon (king, sockeye, coho, chum, and pink), but had never heard of the Copper River salmon.
After returning home, I started paying attention at the grocery store. Sure enough, at the end of May, I saw Copper River salmon for sale, at all places, Costco. It had a distinctive bright color, deep, almost fluorescent pink. It stood out from the oh so pedestrian color-added common farmed salmon.
Grilling the Copper River salmon on cedar planks, enhanced by only the simplest of spices – salt and pepper, its flavor was rich, overrunning with Omega-3 goodness. I was hooked. I look forward to having Copper River salmon every year starting around Memorial Day.
Copper River salmon is prized by world over due to its high oil content and rich flavor. Arrival of the first salmon in Seattle every year is an event celebrated with much fanfare by seafood lovers and foodies alike. But where exactly is the Copper River?
Cordova and the Copper River Delta
City of Cordova (population 2300) in Alaska is located on the southeastern edge of Prince William Sound, 160 miles east of Anchorage. The 275-mile long Copper River empties into a delta 20 miles to the east of Cordova. At 700,000 acres, the Copper River delta is the largest contiguous wetland on the Pacific Coast in North America.
The delta is home waters to all five species of Pacific salmon as they make their annual spawning run. As a result, the delta hosts a multitude of birds and wildlife.
Salmon from the Copper River delta is biologically different than salmon found elsewhere.
This is because Copper River salmon are larger and fatter due to the longer spawning run from the Pacific Ocean back to the many rivers and streams that make up the Copper River watershed. The watershed area is 26,500 square miles, with headwaters draining from the Copper Glacier in the Wrangell Mountains.
Industrial harvesting of salmon in Cordova began in the 1880s by one of three canneries. By the 1920s, the number of canneries had ballooned to 22. Back then, the journey to Seattle takes one week by steamship.
With Cordova being a landlocked city, even today, air and sea are the only means of transport for people and products.
Introduction of air transportation in the 1980s changed the fundamentals of the salmon industry in Cordova. Fresh salmon can now be shipped to Seattle in a matter of hours. Recognizing Copper River salmon’s unique quality and answering to consumer demand for fresh salmon, a coop was started by the commercial gillnet fishing community to market Copper River salmon (Prince William Sound gillnetters later joined this association as well).
Gillnet is a curtain-like mesh with opening just large enough to catch salmon at the gill (the fish is “gilled”). Gillnets are suspended by corks at the top and weighted at the bottom. They measure 900 feet long by 18 feet deep and roll on a hydraulically operated drum. The mesh is sized to target specific species.
On the Copper River delta, commercial fishermen practice what is known as drift gillnetting, where the gillnet drifts alongside the boat and not fixed at a single location.
“Commercial” fishing used in the context of gillnetting is really a misnomer. There are no large trawlers and not a big industrial operation, as one would imagine. These fishermen are small independent business owners. They can be best described as proud artisans who carefully handle their catch in order to meet the salmon’s high reputation.
Gone are the days of the salty old fishermen. The next generation has taken over, ranging from those who are eager to the continue the family tradition to those wanting to embark on adventures as part of their job. Even women are joining the ranks, breaking the stereotypical mold.
The majority of the commercial fishermen operate small, 30 to 40 feet long, one- or two-person vessels known as bow pickers. Gillnets are set off at the bow of the boat, hence the name. The boat can be operated either from the cabin or at midship, next to the gillnet reel, allowing single person operations.
Despite the potential for high profit, the cost of getting into the commercial fishing business is also high – in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars – for the license (the numbers also are limited), the vessel, and the boat slip.
The 2017 Copper River commercial salmon season opened on Thursday, May 18th at 7 am AKDT. Fishermen trickled out of Cordova Harbor the evening before so they can be in position right at the start of the 12-hour opener. The fishery is located in an area known as the flats, between the Copper River delta and the barrier islands facing the Gulf of Alaska.
Fishermen operate independently and scatter throughout the fishery along the flats. Some choose to join radio groups that use a private encrypted channel to share information. Others use their own trade secrets, for example, determining the optimal net opening between the smallest and largest required size, or the best net color for catching salmon.
Fishermen lay out gillnets from 15 minutes to one hour at a time. As the gillnet reels back onto the boat, gilled salmon are harvested in the process. Salmon are then drained of blood (which prevents the “fishy” taste) and stored with ice on board. Those fishermen working with local processing plants such as Copper River, Trident, and Ocean Beauty Seafoods, deliver their catch to larger ships known as tenders positioned throughout the fishery.
Tenders (each representing a different seafood processor) deliver their catch to one of many processing plants in Cordova. Fishermen can remain in the fishery for up to 48 hours before returning to home port.
An hour and a half after the conclusion of the opener, bowpickers return to Cordova Boat Harbor en masse. For the next hour, the harbor is bustling with activity. The constant rumble of boat motors reverberated throughout the city. Despite breezy winds and a steady rain, families gathered at the harbor to witness the spectacle and welcomed the fishermen home. With a such a tight-knit fishing community, everyone knew someone on these boats.
An hour later, as quickly as it started, the harbor went silent, absent of crackling motors. Everyone was back home.
Meanwhile, at the fish processing plant, work that began in the afternoon continued throughout the night as tenders arrive with their precious commodity. At Ocean Beauty Seafoods, tenders dock directly at the plant. Cranes lift colorful crates containing freshly caught salmon packed in ice before getting wheeled inside for inspection, sorting, and processing. Due to their high value, prized king salmon are handled with care. Workers cradle each king with both arms and place them slowly on belts and in containers.
Typically, fishermen get paid around $10 per pound for king salmon. After processing and shipping, retail price swells to $50 per pound. Processed salmon (head and inners removed) get packed in 50-pound (sockeye) or 80-pound (king) boxes for shipment.
At Ocean Beauty in Cordova, the first three weeks of the season consists of 100% fresh king and sockeye salmon shipped by air from Cordova. As the season for other salmon species open throughout the summer, the volume increases and the operation expands to fast freezing, canning, and smoking. By that point, not time sensitive products get shipped by barge to Seward (150 nautical miles away) and then either by air from Anchorage or by road via the Alaska-Canada Highway.
First Salmon Delivery Flight
Kings and sockeyes, freshly boxed for their flight, get expedited along Cordova’s only highway 13 miles east to the Merle K. “Mudhole” Smith Airport (CDV/PACV). The first Copper River salmon delivery flight would be flown on an Alaska Airlines 737-400 combi – a combination cargo and passenger aircraft.
These combis can only be found inside Alaska and Seattle. They carry 72-passengers at the rear and four LD7 Unit Load Devices (ULDs) at the front, loaded via a side cargo door. The airline affectionally calls these ULDs “igloos”. Each igloo can carry up to 6,000 pounds of cargo.
The first salmon delivery flight carried 22,000 pounds of salmon and 18 passengers consisting of employees, members of the media, and invited guests. Only three of four igloos were loaded due to weight and balance from the light passenger load. Boxes of salmon were also loaded as belly cargo.
At 2:30 am AKDT, flight AS 9231 lifted off CDV’s 7500 feet Runway 09 for the 1,300 mile flight south to Seattle-Tacoma (SEA/KSEA). On board, the two friendly flight attendants served passengers free flowing drinks and while everyone munched on delicious cookies from The Little Cordova Bakery. On this three-hour redeye flight, the flight length was just too short for productive sleep.
At 6:30 am PDT, the first Copper River salmon flight taxied up to the Alaska Airlines Cargo ramp in Seattle to the eager anticipation of chefs and invited guests. Less than 24 hours after opening of the season, First Officer Melissa VanDyke carried off the ceremonial first fish – a massive king salmon weighing 45 pounds – on the red carpet. The three loaded igloos were quickly rushed off to the warehouse for distribution.
Copper Chef Cook Off
In a hat-tip to the celebrated Japanese cooking competition TV program Iron Chef, three top Seattle restaurant chefs were invited to compete in the “Copper Chef” Cook-Off. Each chef had one hour to create their special salmon dish, preparing and plating sufficient amount for all guests in attendance. Ocean Beauty Seafoods master fish cutter Nestor skillfully filleted, deboned, and skinned the first salmon and portioned them to the chef’s specifications.
David Yeo, executive chef at Wild Ginger, was first to serve only 15 minutes into the competition. His Otak Otak Salmon had a robust sauce and was very spicy. It was this author’s opinion that the strong sauce overpowered the delicate flavor of the salmon.
John Sundstrom, executive chef at Lark created Salmon with Risotto Espuma (foam) with Morels, Bacon, and Spring Onion. While the bacon and the salmon roe were too salty, the salmon, cooked medium rare, was moist and full of rich salmon flavor.
Stuart Lane, executive chef at Spinasse/Artusi created a “salmon three ways” dish, with Butter Poached Salmon as the main piece. Chef Lane labored over a large pot for the majority of the hour cooking his salmon with butter on gentle heat. I thought this dish best showcased the salmon’s flexibility: on its own, as crispy skin, and filled in a roll – each with a unique taste and texture.
Chef Sundstrom’s dish was the crowd favorite and he was awarded title of Copper Chef. His prize, a trophy in the shape of a salmon – made of copper (of course!).
To support Copper River’s opener, Alaska Airlines lifted approximately 77,000 pounds of salmon on four flights from Cordova on Friday, May 19th. This included one 737-400 freighter flight carrying 32,000 pounds of salmon. Last year, the airline transported more than 30 million pounds of Copper River salmon from Cordova to the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
Next time at the grocery store, will you start looking for the Copper River salmon label when kicking off the summer grilling season? I already do! Don’t let the high price and short two-month season commanded by kings scare you. Sockeyes are plentiful and affordable. Coho is a late-season salmon that will keep you busy on the grill through September.
And now knowing their full story, I appreciate these Copper River salmon even more.