Got my first-of-the-year pieces of Copper River salmon last week. At a small store with few customers and impressive disinfecting protocols.
For many years, come fresh salmon harvesting in Alaska and I’m dashing to buy my $20-per-pound Copper River fillet.
Gotta have it! It’s the best. People say so. Frankly, to me it tastes like, well, like salmon but not that metallic, farmed Atlantic kind. But looks really red!
Then an old newspaper colleague posted on Facebook that Copper River salmon was just plain old King, Sockeye, Coho, or maybe even Chum found in the other Alaska rivers but much more smartly marketed to us know-nothings in Hawaii.
Can that be? I’d recently driven along the Copper River. Nothing special for Alaska. Bears poop in it. Fishermen pee in it. A Ukrainian dude was surfing in it on a board secured by rope to a steel post set in wave-producing rapids.
The salmon race past, head upriver to lay eggs or fertilize those eggs and then die. They get red meat from their diet rich in carotenoids, the pigment that gives un-GMO’d carrots their color.
So was I being had for maybe $30 for a chunk of fish I could have here at one-third the price? After all, I don’t buy my sashimi based on whether the ahi had been caught in this fishing spot or that.
I hit the research road.
You probably know that salmon go to spawn at precisely the upriver pool where they were born. The sense the chemical makeup of the water. Copper River runs 300 miles. So a salmon going way up needs to eat greedily before starting. They need fat because they stop eating as soon as they enter fresh water.
But a lot of other rivers’ salmon are just as fatty. That’s where the fishermen and women come into the story.
Most always netted and roughly unloaded their salmon and were casual about icing them. But in the 80s some Copper River fishers tired of the low prices they were getting convinced the others to frequently unload nets, handle the salmon carefully and quickly toss them in any icy slurry. Then they promoted this to restaurants for chefs to tell the diners.
The professional marketers took over from there. Copper River salmon tend to spawn earlier than most others, so diners were told they’re also getting the first salmon of the season. Doesn’t that make your fillet worth $60?
So yes, it is good fish but it’s just King or Sockeye, very red, very fatty, and from that magical place Copper River.
Finally, There can be no denying that among seafood lovers, Copper River is now a brand name meaning yummy. Those fishermen earn nearly twice as much money for their salmon than for those caught elsewhere in Alaska, even though they are catching the same species, born in the same rivers and fattened in the same cold Pacific waters.