The fun begins


Cordova fisherman Jason Lake with the catch of the day/Anonymous

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.

Famous fish

Seattle, as usual, was feasting on the commercial opening.

KIRO-TV provided live video of the photo-opp of “the first batch of the celebrated fish from Cordova.”

“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.

Former New York Times reporter Timothy Egan once wrote a news story proclaiming the latter “arguably the world’s best-tasting fish,” but the results of blind tastings have been somewhat more mixed. 

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. 


9 replies »

  1. Majority of CR drift fishers pick their nets once an hour, especially if you are making ebb & flood flyers on the ocean bars. 85% of those fish are live & gills are plucked or sliced before fish are put in a slushed ice bag, not dropped 30”. Go into any local Cordova processors, and see the fresh fillets with no bruises on them. 90% of CR sockeyes are #1 grade.
    Your time on flats:
    How many years ago?
    Were you a permit holder or crew?

  2. The simple facts are that a farmed fish is bled, gutted and on the cooling rack in minutes. How can a fish that is not bled, perhaps in the net for hours, and brailed(read bruised) compare? Add in the fact that the farmed fish have a pre calculated fat content for optimum taste. Sorry to report that a properly handled sport caught fish is also far superior. And the consumer who is going to pay bust out retail for these fish is figuring it out.

    • Excuse me?
      Copper River drift fishers pioneered the quality push in the early ‘80s in AK.
      Majority of CR kings and reds are bled and ice slushed on the grounds. The tender, working for local processors, have 33-35 degree water, in their holds, to receive the fish every 8 hours. Nothing wrong with that quality fish, pass the #1 fish test, any day of the week.

    • James-
      Congratulations on what sounded like a great opener. A couple of points in regard to your comment-
      -First, how does one bleed a dead fish? Having been out on the flats, I rarely observed anyone picking nets in low light. Meaning those fish were in the nets for several hours or maybe a whole tide. Dead.
      -Fish are pulled from the nets and dropped to the deck, probably 30″ or so. Bruise.
      -Fish are brailed from the bow picker and into the tender. Bruise.
      -The “#1 Fish Test” is an industry standard, much like Car and Driver giving an award to Ford.
      Still, what goes on in your fishery is as good as it gets. My point is that a controlled farm harvest does not have the obstacles you face.

    • Bob,sport fishers,and especially dipnetters as a whole.Rarely treat fish optimal.Thats something I’ve been watching for almost 50 yrs.
      If you want to understand what that really means,
      Somewheres in ASMI archives are proper handling techniques.
      Outside of trollers,its something that the majority of commercial fleets had to be clubbed with.
      And quality handling still doesnt get the dockprice premium that it deserves(except of course for a few niche markets)

  3. Well,
    As I look at the yellow signs up and down the Park’s Highway that say CLOSED to salmon fishing….
    I have one take away from your article…
    “This year is looking closer to normal….Seattle, as usual, was feasting on the commercial opening.”
    I guess living in the Banana Republic of America only benifits those with the largest boats and biggest nets?

  4. Andy, here’s a rough translation:

    “Should fresh farmed salmon, frozen farmed salmon or wild salmon be on the plate? The Stiftung Warentest has examined this and comes to the verdict: In the taste test, the fresh farmed salmon is clearly ahead of the game.

    “A total of six times awarded the testers for the fresh farmed fish the grade “good” and once the grade “satisfactory”. Sensory cut the fresh salmon fillets from German sea the best. The organic fillets from Aldi Nord and the fresh conventional salmon fillets from Seafood Spezialitäten are almost as good, but cheaper, the Foundation reports in its magazine “test” (issue 3/2018).

    “the case of frozen farmed salmon, there were eleven times the grade “good”, twice “satisfactory” and one time “sufficient”. There were deductions in almost all samples in the sensory judgment. In terms of taste, the testers of the frozen products convinced only the farmed salmon of Eismann.

    “Tasty disappointing, the testers found the wild salmon fillets. Here only frozen foods were purchased. Only two of the nine products tested were rated “good”, all others were “satisfactory”. One reason for the loss of flavor could be that most wild salmon are old and well traveled: a product was frozen in September 2015, but stable until May 2018.

    “The wild salmon are transported frozen from the fishing areas off Alaska and Russia to Europe. Often they make a stopover in Asia, where workers fillet them. They can turn on or thaw. When breeding salmon, the paths are shorter, mostly he comes from Norway. Of the purchased frozen fillets tested, none was older than six months. Fresh farmed salmon even make it to Germany within a few days.”

    one can only guess how three-year-old filets would taste. i wonder if the testers set the limit of “none was older than six months” just so they wouldn’t have to eat three-year-old fish?

    • Copper river salmon!!! I beg to differ with the studies / poles on farmed . I understand the economic benefits but I would have to ask who paid for the taste test? Was it backers of farmed salmon? Did pinks accidentally get substituted for wild reds ? Something is askew . Fine by me though! Hopefully everyone goes farmed so I have more wild to eat!

  5. Craig,

    I took a look at your blind tasting link — however — the link took me to an article written in what I suspect is German — since I do not speck German it did not provide any insight.

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