After dismal, back-to-back starts to Alaska’s season of the salmon in 2017 and 2018, there appear to be 2019 reasons for 49th state fishermen to be optimistic.
Or should that be 25,523 – the number of sockeye salmon past the Copper River sonar counter as of Monday. That’s more than double the cumulative goal for the date and comes after respectable catches in the commercial fishery on Thursday (20,534) and Monday (53,232).
The two-day catch of almost 74,000 sockeye is near three-times what Cordova-based, commercial driftnetters working off the mouth of the river caught over the course of an incredibly short season that basically amounted to three short openings in May of last year.
What was expected to be a 2018 bonanza with sockeye fetching $9.50 per pound at the dock and a forecast harvest of 1.2 million turned into a bust, because it doesn’t matter how much the fish are worth if you don’t have any to sell.
The poor 2018 catch came on the heels of a poor May catch in 2017 when state fishery managers worried about a forecasted Chinook (king) salmon disaster limited the fishery to only 43 hours fishing for the month.
Far more kings than expected eventually showed up and the fishery was expanded in June, but by then other Alaska sockeye were coming on the market and the early-season, premium prizes were falling fast.
Though it is too early in the 2019 season to get over-excited, the catch to date is hinting at the potential for a total turnaround from last year and 2017. Opening day prices were hovering around $10 per pound for sockeye, and this time there are fish to sell.
And if the sockeye run continues to build the way it has been with sonar counts every day significantly above the daily management objectives, the popular, Alaskan-only, Chitina personal-use dipnet fishery upriver on the Copper should open on schedule at the end of the first week in June.
There were so few fish in the river in early June last year that fishery managers with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game decided to allow dipnetting in the belief that the run was simply late and inefficient dipnetters wouldn’t catch enough fish early to matter.
Managers were right about the dipnetters not catching much, but when they realized the run was missing – not late – they promptly closed the fishery. Dipnetting stayed shut down until July. By then, a lot of them had written off the fishery as a bust, but those who persisted benefited from a late and unusual surge of sockeye in August.
State fisheries managers tried to blame The Blob, a pooling of hot water in the Gulf of Alaska, the strange return, but there was no real evidence to support that conjecture. By the time the season ended with that late burst of fish and spawning goals met throughout the Copper River valley, fisheries biologists could only scratch their heads for an explanation.
This year is looking closer to normal.
Seattle, as usual, was feasting on the commercial opening.
“The arrival of fresh Copper River king and sockeye salmon is a rite of spring in Seattle where the fish are prized for their flavor,” KOMO News dutifully reported. “They typically bring the highest prices at restaurants and fish markets.”
Although Alaska commercial salmon trollers off the Southeast Alaska coast have been fishing since May 1, the mid-May opening of the Copper gillnet fishery is generally considered the official beginning of the season, and both Copper River sockeye and king (Chinook) salmon have developed a significant cult following.
As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so too taste appears to be in the mouth of the consumer. There is little doubt, however, that fresh Copper River salmon – king or sockeye – is prime table fare.
It just might not be as rich as a fish hand-raised to maximize its fat content to please the human palate. And the fat fish might help protect against overcooking, the bugaboo of inexperienced salmon chefs.
“If you cook a fatty steak, it stays juicy even if you overcook it by a little bit,” observes Dan Sousa at The Splendid Table. A lean steak, on the other hand, drys out. Sousa, the executive editor of Cook’s Science at America’s Test Kitchen, said the kitchen got curious about that and did an experiment.
They reduced the internal temperature of their cooked, wild salmon to 120 degrees, instead of the 125 degrees preferred for most fish.
“We tried five different wild species (of salmon) and everyone preferred them cooked to 120 degrees,” he said.
Thus there is one clear caveat on tastier; tastier as long as you don’t overcook it. And with Copper River salmon now retailing at $45 to $50 per pound at the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, you don’t want to screw up tasty.