Copper River Salmon: The Best Fish or the Best PR?

 

The one that didn't get away.

The one that didn't get away.

Fishermen working the waters of Alaska’s Copper River district claim that their salmon are the best in the world. Fishermen from other parts of the state insist that their fish are equally good and that Copper River’s reputation is founded more on well-executed PR than intrinsic quality. Discretion is the better part of valor, particularly in matters related to regional food loyalties, and I’ve had marvelous salmon from several parts of Alaska.

The experience is made all the more enjoyable by knowing that all Alaskan salmon is sustainably managed and wild, unlike environmentally damaging (and off-tasting) farmed salmon.

But there is a valuable lesson for other fishermen and fish eaters from Copper River. There can be no denying that among seafood lovers, Copper River is all but a brand name, one synonymous with quality. (Have you ever seen salmon promoted as “Bristol Bay” or “Kodiak?”) And fishermen receive nearly twice as much money for Copper River salmon than they do for fish caught in some other regions of Alaska, even though they are catching the same species, born in the same clean, glacial lakes and streams and maturing in the same cold, northern Pacific waters.

I was interested in finding the secret to Copper River’s success late last month when I traveled to Cordova, Alaska, as a guest of the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association.

Copper River fishermen do have a couple of natural advantages over the competition. Their salmon are the first to spawn in the spring, heading back to the river and the fishermen’s waiting nets in May just when winter-deadened appetites in the lower Forty Eight are most eager for the year’s first fresh salmon.

From a culinary point of view, the geography of the Copper River watershed has given its salmon an evolutionary advantage over others. The river is nearly 300 miles long and flows powerfully from glaciers high in the Chugach and St. Elias Wrangell Mountains. The upstream swim to the salmon’s natal pools requires enormous exertion, and because salmon stop eating once they re-enter fresh water, they have to rely on huge reserves of built-up fat to fuel their efforts. High-fat content means moist and flavorful flesh.

Savvy marketing has definitely played a role in Copper River’s success. In the 1980s virtually all the Copper River catch was being exported to Japan at prices so low that fishermen were pulling their boats out of the water and hanging up their nets. But a group of area fishermen were convinced that their salmon were special. “I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that we have the best sockeye salmon in the world,” Jim Kallander, one of those fishermen, who is now the mayor of Cordova, told me over a dinner of—I really don’t need to tell you, do I? “We felt that there was more value in our salmon than we were getting by shipping them in bulk to Japan.”

Working with Jon Rowley, a seafood business consultant based in the Seattle area, the fishermen introduced restaurant chefs in the Pacific Northwest to Copper River salmon, often personally walking into the kitchens and coaxing them to try a box or two. The chefs in turn spread the gospel by specifying Copper River on their menu descriptions, in effect giving the fish a brand name.

Because Copper River fishermen thought their salmon were special, they also decided to treat them accordingly by adopting more conscientious handling practices than were the industry norm. Thea Thomas, who has fished Copper River for more than 20 years, was among those who saw the importance of maintaining quality. I hopped a ride with her for a firsthand look at how a Copper River salmon made the journey from ocean to dock. It was a rare sunny day as we motored out of mountain-rimmed Orca Inlet, with its sea otters and seals. Once out in the open Gulf of Alaska, Thomas set out a gill net as long as three football fields, hoping to intercept some inbound salmon. After about 45 minutes, she began to retrieve the net on a tractor-wheel-sized mechanical reel mounted behind the cabin on her boat. Copper River fishermen are encouraged to pull in their nets frequently so the salmon come aboard while still alive.

I’d been on salmon gillnetters before, so I had a few preconceptions of what might happen next—fish violently shaken from the net onto the deck, getting kicked around and stepped on before being tossed like so many chunks of stove wood into a plastic container, piling on top of each other by the hundreds and with no ice to keep them cold. So I was surprised to see Thomas extract her salmon from the net individually, sever their gills so that they bled cleanly and quickly, then immediately place then in a slurry of ice chips and seawater. To be certain that an ample supply of ice was available, even during periods when the fleet was working far from port, the fishermen themselves bought a barge to transport it to the boats rather than risk running out.

Convincing fishermen who are used to treating their catch as a commodity to change their ways took some time, and is still to some extent a work in progress, but as more members of the Cordova fleet saw that there was money to be made by taking good care of salmon, they improved their practices. And the processors and shippers followed the example of the fishermen. Instead of being frozen and shipped to Japan, Copper River salmon were loaded onto planes shortly after arriving at the processors in Cordova and air-freighted to Seattle the same night.

“The fishermen raised the bar for everyone,” said Kallander. “In the end, what it is all about is treating the fish with the respect they deserve.” In a world where wild seafood is increasingly at risk, that strikes me as a philosophy that fishermen and consumers should adopt—no matter where their fish comes from.

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14 comments

  1. Jacquie says:

    As a commercial troller in Alaska, I agree with most of what you’re saying. The care that copper river fish get have set the standard for the industry. Innovations and practices there have spread through the state’s many producers and now folks in Bristol Bay, Sitka, and elsewhere produce high quality fish. Folks have learned they can command a higher price for pretty fish.

    The copper river sockeye may have been “better” at one time, but now pretty much everyone bleeds and slushes their fish in this manner. Anytime you are catching something that fetches more than $1 per pound you take the time to clean/bleed/dress the fish to maintain that high price (nobody wants their catch #2’d). The high price per fish make it worth picking the nets/pulling the gear often.

    Now, in my humble opinon, the Copper River Sockeye are a brand rather than an exceptional mark of quality.

  2. mick says:

    Our markets have been buying wild salmon directly from a fisherman in Cordova for about 15 years now, and we also buy salmon from other regions as each run comes in. They are all excellent, but there is definitely a difference in the taste of each salmon – especially when comparing Kings head to head. We also bring in sustainably farmed BC salmon. Certainly there are better and worse fish farmers (we have always boycotted Chilean salmon) as there are responsible and irresponsible wild fish harvesters. Sadly propogandists have clouded the issue – but salmon can be raised responsibly. Please don’t damn all salmon farming. As for flavor, customers generally prefer the mild flavor of BC salmon, and enthusiasts prefer the Copper River salmon.

  3. Barry says:

    Mick, thanks for the commenbt. I would be very interested in hearing more about the sustainably farmed BC salmon you refer to. Are they kept in net pens in open water? Are they transplanted Atlantic Salmon? Do they have to be fed fish oil or fish meal? Are they ever trreated with antibiotics or other drugs? Have they ever had sea lice on the farms? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then I would have to take issue with your claim that they are raised responsibly.

  4. Karen says:

    Per reading a decent amount of information on farm raised seafood, I will only buy wild, never farmed raised. In addition to its contribution to poisoning our waters, it is certainly not a choice for me, my body and our earth. Barry, I enjoyed this post (as always) and find your view/reporting timely and interesting.

  5. Barry says:

    Thanks, Karen. I’m by no means against farmed seafood per se. Farmed oysters and mussels are great tasting, and because they are filter feeders they actually clean the environment. I’m not a particular fan of the taste (or lack thereof) of farmed tilapia and catrfish, but if they are fed a vegetarian diet and raised in self-contained ponds, they are a an environmentally friendly way to produce protein. But when you start putting carnivorous fish like salmon in open-water net pens, environmental mayhem is the result. And it doesn’t taste good.

  6. Andrew says:

    Barry,

    I do think that when talking about farmed salmon it is important to note that much of the salmon that comes from Alaska (over 40%) is ranched, or farmed, starting in hatcheries and released into the wild. This is actually a wonderful way to fortify the stock and a great conservation measure, but must be accepted as a form of fish farming. These ranched fish are fed the same feed that many farmed fish receive. In 2008, ocean ranched salmon represented over 41% of the commercial catch in Alaska.

    I would love to see you cover this topic in more detail in another post as I always enjoy your writing.

  7. Barry says:

    Great point and absolutely right, Andrew. My feeling is that most, if not all, of the environmental ills of farmed salmon come when the fish are kept in saltwater net pens to mature to market size. Although they are not perfect, hatchery programs avoid these issues by releasing their salmon as juveniles.

  8. Jacquie says:

    Barry–thanks for pointing out the difference between hatchery programs and net-pen farming. Commercial fisherman in Alaska pay a tax (from 2-3%) that goes right into hatchery programs. Everybody benefits from recreational users to the commercial fleet. It’s not a perfect system by any means but the people who run the hatcheries spend a lot of time making sure the Hatchery Fish are healthy and their runs do not impact wild ones.

    Fish politics! The bar conversation starter in AK.

  9. Gael says:

    Beginning in April this year, BC salmon farms decided to refuse to volunteer or make available tissue samples for provincial fish health (bacterial disease and viruses) and sea lice monitoring audits!! This has made any government officials impotent and incapable of regulating the notoriously secretive industry !! Who knows what you are eating.

    Another great concern is the new Canadian Aquaculture “Organic” Standards they are trying to push through. BC fish farms will still be allowed to use antibiotics, drugs and paraticides, not have to submit to tissue sampling, pollute the ocean floor under the cages, etc, etc but be labelled organic! There is no comparison to the much stricter standards of organic agriculture. Consumers will be very misled if this is allowed to go through. Public input closes August 30th, so I would encourage everyone who is concerned about what they eat to write a letter of complaint!

  10. Gael says:

    I’d also like to add to this chat that “ranched” salmon are juveniles and are released as soon as they develop their scales. It’s like a Head Start program making it more likely they will survive their big swim to the open ocean, They then spend the rest of their adult lives in the ocean (2 to 4 years depending on type), living, and eating, and being eaten, as do all wild Pacific salmon.

    Salmon are a “keystone species” connected to over 200 other species. Very important in the food chain! Farmed salmon kept in cages their whole life aren’t part of this web of life. Bears, eagles, seals, whales, etc, depend on salmon for their diet. If salmon farms are allowed to continue passing their diseases to the wild stock, many species will be in trouble, not just the wild Pacific salmon.

  11. Barry says:

    Great points Gael. In my opinion, calling farmed salmon “organic” is nothing short of consumer fraud for the very reasons you stated. In most states, salmon deemed “organic” by foreign eco-certification organizations can be sold as such. But their standards aren’t even close to what we consider to be organic. California bans such labeling. Other jurisdictions should follow.

  12. Gary Dewling says:

    I am just reading up on Alaska’s salmon ranching program. Do you think that 1.5 billion carnivorous fish released into Alaska waters each year has an impact? Does each ranched salmon eat more fish meal than a farmed salmon (pound for pound)? Do ranched salmon interbreed with wild salmon and is there science that says that is a risk to wild salmon genetics? Are they potential carriers of disease and sea lice? Could they fed antibiotics in the hatchery? Is there risk of by-catch of ‘at-risk’ wild salmon when catching returning ranched salmon? Is there by-catch of other species in the commercial fishing method?

    I’m interested to know what you may know about this. Thanks. Gary.

  13. Can somebody tell me how to go about getting salmon that’s been swimming in the Bering Sea? Are there companies that specialize in this?

  14. Kelly says:

    Hi! I’m just a waiter at a restaurant that serves Copper River Salmon in-season and doing some research on the topic. I don’t have much to add but wanted to say this is by far the most civil and well-informed comment section I have ever seen on the internet!

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