CORDOVA, Alaska (Reuters) - Fed by vast glaciers, Alaska’s Copper River flows 300 miles from the rugged Wrangell Mountains, fanning out into a wildlife-rich delta of marshes, sloughs and braided channels.
Every spring, as Alaska’s brutal winter begins to thaw, these silty waters become the spawning ground to Copper River salmon, one of the world’s most expensive salmon.
A shutdown of salmon fishing along the U.S. West Coast, due to depleted stocks, and a light run so far this season have driven prices of Copper River salmon to near an all-time high, fetching as much as $45 a pound for the oil-rich fillets.
“There is so much hype and momentum for the fish,” said Lane Hoff, a marketing vice president at Anthony’s Restaurants, a chain of seafood restaurants in Washington state and Oregon that prominently feature Copper River salmon on the menu.
The epicurean journey of Copper River salmon starts in the sleepy Alaskan town of Cordova, where a fleet of about 500 small boats carefully net the prized catch, icing and pampering the fish before they are whisked away by jetliners to the kitchens of upscale restaurants and specialty markets around the world.
Chefs and foodies rave about the two main varieties of Copper River salmon. The more expensive king salmon is light orange and full of natural oils, while the sockeye salmon is firmer with a distinctively brilliant red meat.
The fish’s growing notoriety can be credited in part to a successful marketing campaign that has turned Copper River salmon into a premium brand.
Kobe beef and Burgundy wines have undergone similar marketing makeovers to transform a high-quality product loved by locals into an internationally recognized brand.
Gunnar Knapp, a fisheries expert and economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said marketing hype alone does not explain the fish’s commercial success. He also credits the fish’s inherent tastiness and market conditions.
Copper River salmon’s rich flavor derives from the abundant fat reserves that the fish carries in order to endure the 300-mile (482-km) trek from Prince William Sound to its spawning ground. It is also caught earlier than other wild Alaskan salmon, hitting the market at a period of low supply.
“The fish developed a reputation for not just being inherently good, but also being handled well — not all banged up and bruised and sitting for hours in the sun,” said Knapp.
In a typical year, Alaska accounts for about 90 percent of all U.S. wild salmon but it will likely be the only source of wild salmon this year. U.S. West Coast fisheries managers have halted nearly all sport and commercial fishing of salmon in Oregon, California and Washington state to replenish stocks.
Between 500,000 to 2 million salmon, according to Knapp, are caught in the Copper River every year, representing about 1 percent of all the wild salmon caught in the state. Farmed salmon is illegal in Alaska.
In Cordova, a town of 2,400 where weather-beaten homes perch on the edge of the northern rainforest against a vista of snowcapped peaks, waterfalls and distant glaciers, the growing fame of Copper River salmon has become a source of pride.
“We always knew it was good. We certainly ate a lot of it when I was a kid. I figured it would be popular one of these days,” said Vic Jones, a lifelong Cordova resident who started fishing with his father in the 1960s.
It is a bright spot for a town that suffered the brunt of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and its continuing aftermath, the subsequent collapse of salmon prices overall and the emergence of cheap farmed salmon from Chile, Canada and elsewhere.
While not accessible by roads, Cordova boasts a full-scale airport with a runway long enough to accommodate the biggest commercial jets. Many of those jets fly in during May to carry away the town’s prized resource.
A faded promotional poster taped to a store window in Cordova’s tiny downtown reads: “There’s only one place in the world where copper is better than gold.”
Writing by Daisuke Wakabayashi; Editing by Cynthia Osterman