Copper River Salmon Celebrates Forty Years of Fresh

CORDOVA, Alaska – The Copper River Salmon season opens Monday, May 15th and anticipation is high for the robust genetically rich salmon that return to the cold glacial waters of the Copper River each season.

The steep river is home to five species of salmon and for the 2023 season, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecasts the Copper River king salmon run to be above average.

Excitement is running high amongst fishermen, but the significance of this season runs deeper as it marks the 40th anniversary of when Copper River King salmon made the leap from cans into fresh distribution. Prior to 1983, the ultra-rich king was caught, processed, and tucked into cans for domestic markets. A small amount was shipped frozen to Japan.

As American consumer tastes expanded there was increased interest in wild and unique foods. A small cadre of Copper River fishermen took a risk and made a pivot towards handling the fish differently and shipping them fresh to select markets in the Lower 48. Working closely with Seattle seafood and restaurant consultant Jon Rowley at the time, was a leap of faith and played a key role in the fishery then and now. Rowley knew that the oil-rich salmon was genetically superior and eminently marketable. He worked directly with fishermen to improve quality and handling and to bring the salmon to Seattle restaurant clients immediately after it was caught.

Jerry McCune, a Copper River fisherman for 64 years, explained in an interview how making quality paramount required the fishermen to adjust what they were doing and how much fish they were catching. They had to take the unprecedented steps to bleed, clean, and ice the fish on board to maintain the inherent characteristics of the fish and they were the ones who had to secure air transport into and out of Cordova to get the fish delivered to Seattle and elsewhere in top condition. McCune explained, “The end result of this whole thing was that we broke the market and proved we could get fish out fresh and of high quality.”

Christa Hoover, the Executive Director of the Copper River Prince William Sound Marketing Association reflects, “As this momentous season launches here in Cordova, we are so pleased that we could revisit and share the history of how the revered Copper River King salmon made a leap into a new realm. Conducting oral interviews and digging through historical archives, it has been incredibly satisfying to see how the fishery has evolved and yet remained steadfastly committed to quality for the consumer. We look forward to sharing this story now and into the future.”

For historical background, photos, tips, and recipes, see The Noble Fish: Forty Years of Fresh Copper River Salmon.

To find Copper River Salmon, search for it on the Fish Finder.