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.