Alaska’s ‘golden goose’ is a fish

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

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson/FILE)
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.

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.

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.

As do federal fishery managers, Alaska restricts the number of participants in the Copper River harvest and other commercial salmon fisheries. The state’s limited-entry system provides fishing permits to specific harvests, permits that can be bought, sold, traded, and inherited. At the time the system was established, it was controversial: It required a 1972 amendment to the state constitution.

Unlike harvests in federal waters, the Copper River and other salmon runs are not capped by a preseason limit. Instead, state biologists monitor runs in-season with the help of underwater sonar devices and allow periodic “openings,” or harvest periods, based on those counts – so long as “escapement” goals are met. (Escapement refers to the number of salmon that must reach the spawning grounds to ensure a healthy salmon population.) Even though biologists attempt preseason forecasts, no one knows until the season is over how big the run and overall catch will be.

Despite the uncertainty and lack of per-boat catch caps, Copper River fishery enjoys many of the benefits that quota systems are supposed to bring: a preserved resource, maximum value of the fish, and enhanced safety.

The general harvest schedule lets fishermen net salmon for 12 hours a day on Mondays and Thursdays, starting mid-May until August, when a different coho salmon run begins. The relatively long season – a contrast to much more compressed harvests, such as that in the prolific Bristol Bay fishing grounds – is a huge economic advantage, says Cordova fisherman John Bocci. “You have several opportunities to make your living,” he says. That means fishermen can emphasize quality over quantity and avoid the rush. When high winds and foul weather blasted through the fishing grounds on the opening this season, most figured it was smarter to stay ashore and wait for better fishing weather. From that May 12 opener, Alaska Airlines shipped only about 7,500 pounds of Copper River salmon in its first cargo flight from Cordova instead of the expected 20,000 pounds.

For this town of 2,400, where portraits of all 42 high school graduates are displayed in the newspaper centerfold, the zealously guarded Copper River brand name has become a source of civic pride. A July festival features a “King Salmon” marathon and a “Sockeye” half-marathon. Promotional banners touting the local fish product abound in the small downtown, proclaiming: “Copper River Salmon: Still Doing the Wild Thing.”

Fishermen in other Alaska regions have started trying to copy the Copper River approach. Those working the waters of Cook Inlet south of Anchorage have established a “Kenai Wild” brand, while some in southwestern Alaska are promoting an “Aleutia” brand and some in southeast Alaska are marketing a “Keta” brand, using a Tlingit word for salmon.
“Every region is trying to develop a brand for their region. They want to tell their own story. And they should,” says Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association. Still, Copper River salmon remains the “gold standard,” he says. “There’s no way that they’re going to compete on the same flavor scale,” he says.

But even in this fishery, overcapitalization remains a risk.

Fishermen this year are contending with a relatively modest return and extremely high costs because of skyrocketing fuel prices. That is a change from last year’s bumper crop of more than 1.89 million Copper River sockeye, the third-largest haul on record. Some might have been unprepared for the economically tougher 2008 conditions, sinking money into new equipment instead of saving it to meet this year’s higher expenses. Said longtime Cordova fisherman Dan Hull as he walked the dock on the eve of an opener, “You walk down the other docks and you see some shiny new aluminum boats.”

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