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.
MORE ON SALMON:
Corby Kummer: "Copper River Salmon"
Corby Kummer: "Salmon Fishing"
Sam Fromartz: "Cooking Whole Fish"
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.
"In the end, what it is all about is treating the fish with the respect they deserve," Kallander said.
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," Kallander said. "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 of fish should adopt—no matter where their fish comes from.