In Cordova, in south-central Alaska, I met Scott Blake, CEO of Copper River Seafoods. A former commercial fisherman and the son of fishers, Blake cofounded the company in 1993 with three other fishermen.
We drove inland to the mouth of the 300-mile-long Copper River. Mountains on both sides and a massive glacier surround the spot where the 100-year-old Million Dollar Bridge connects the old copper mines to a transportation corridor. The setting easily rivals the beauty of the Grand Canyon.
It is also where the Department of Fish and Game monitors the numbers of returning salmon. As they pass by a mesh screen, their movement trips the sonar counter. F&G estimates quantities and determines allotments for commercial, sport, and subsistence fishermen with these counts.
Fish is caught—trapped, really, given the low tides in which the boats rest and the nets that ensnare the salmon—by gill netters (30-foot boats) that generally off-load their catches with tenders, the larger boats that bring most salmon ashore.
One evening I watched while both gill netters and tenders unloaded their fish at the dock until 11 p.m. into giant 600-pound and 1,000-pound totes stacked by forklifts. As much as anything, this dock is an ice factory, designed to keep the fish at a constant cold temperature. During the salmon run (roughly mid-May through September, depending on species), the sun never sets and the dock is rarely idle.
I went to the plant the next morning at 6 a.m. Dozens of gloved workers were getting the still-iced fish ready for smoking or slicing into sides. They cut off heads and extracted innards, or separated roe and milt from the rest of the salmon. Late that afternoon, Scott and I flew to Anchorage. The salmon, still gleaming but now headless and gutted, journeyed by boat to the same place.
The following morning I went to the company's Anchorage headquarters with Robin Richardson, CEO of Global Food-Connect. We got a tour of the facility where the salmon is cut into sides, pin bones are removed (by machine and by hand), and sides are packed, inspected, boxed, and loaded onto a refrigerated truck for delivery throughout the "lower 48."
After the tour, I was treated to a banquet lunch of five "odds and ends" that most processors toss out: sockeye salsa, a tartare of raw salmon, cilantro, onions, and tomato, and 100-percent salmon burgers, both scraped from the bones of grade A sockeye; halibut and cod cheeks fried in a crunchy batter; and crispy sockeye bellies, enjoyed like ribs and eaten with two hands.
The meal was extraordinary. Why do so few people eat this stuff?
For a big plant, the bits may represent up to 10,000 pounds a day, yet just a fraction of what they produce. Consumers have grown to expect not only a limited set of seafood species (salmon, tuna, cod, shrimp), but a limited range of shapes and cuts as well. That's what retailers buy from processors. (Or perhaps retailers offer a limited range, and that's why consumers now expect them.) The odds and ends rarely get to where consumers can try or buy them. Eaters are missing tremendous flavor, and the world's hungry are missing lots of protein.