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Alaska’s ‘golden goose’ is a fish

By branding its wild salmon as gourmet – and banning salmon farms – this fishery is thriving sustainably.

By Yereth RosenCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 13, 2008

A Copper River king salmon is cut into steaks at the Pike Place Fish market in Seattle. Distinctive in its color and flavor, Copper River salmon are marketed as 'gourmet' and sell for up to $40 a pound. The fishery is a lesson in how to get the most value out of each fish in a way that preserves the fish stock.

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson/FILE)

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CORDOVA, ALASKA

From this picture-perfect Alaska setting of shimmering waters, snowcapped peaks, wild animals, and millions of migrating shorebirds come some of the most prized salmon in the world. The late-spring arrival of sockeye and Chinook salmon into the mouth of the Copper River is eagerly anticipated by chefs and gourmets around the nation and greeted with retail prices as high as $40 a pound.

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In a world where natural salmon runs have nearly vanished and even for Alaska, where wild salmon runs are healthy and bountiful but swimming against a rising tide of cheap farmed fish, the Copper River harvest shines. It illustrates how fishermen can thrive by getting the most value out of each fish instead of chasing after huge catches. For all that, credit several strokes of good fortune and many years of savvy marketing.

The Copper River run comes early, producing the first wild salmon to the market each summer. The fish are intrinsically better tasting, their dark red meat packed with the larger amount of oil needed for the extra-long migration from the ocean up the 300-mile river. A local airport can easily handle daily cargo-jet traffic. And fishermen, processors, and middlemen have invested several years in marketing the product and zealously guarding the Copper River brand name.

“A lot of people will point to the Copper River model and the marketing, but the reality is we’re just lucky,” says Jeff Bailey, co-owner of Prime Select Seafoods, a small dockside processor that has worked hard to cultivate a devoted customer base. Prime Select ships salmon to specialty grocery stores and even to customers’ homes within 24 hours of harvest.

The natural setting doesn’t hurt.

The Copper River slices through spectacular wild territory in the eastern edge of the Chugach National Forest and the western edge of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in south-central Alaska. It starts with snow and glacial runoff from the jagged Wrangell Mountains of interior Alaska, links up with the Chitina River, and roars through the glacier-dotted Chugach Mountains. At its terminus, the river spreads into a wide delta of braided channels and grassy mud flats that form the biggest intact Pacific coast wetland in North America. Each spring, just ahead of the salmon, millions of migrating seabirds converge here to rest and refuel during their northward journey, including trumpeter swans, dusky Canada geese, and most of the world’s western sandpipers.

For a variety of economic and cultural reasons, Alaskans are passionate about their salmon. The desire to wrest control of salmon management from federal authorities, who let outside interests overfish stocks, was one of the motives behind the campaign for statehood. “It was managed for Seattle, and they wanted the money and the fish,” says Sam Cotten, a longtime fisherman, former Alaska State House speaker, and current member of the federal North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Although there is a wide network of hatcheries in the state, mostly producing low-priced pink salmon, salmon farming is illegal in Alaska and actually regarded as anti-Alaskan. “Alaska salmon ... by God,” proclaims a bumper sticker found here and in other coastal towns.

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