Every year, the start of the salmon fishing season on Alaska's famed Copper River is met with fanfare from the Pacific Northwest's restaurants, chefs, and diners. The salmon, prized for its high fat content and bright red flesh, is also said to be the best tasting in the world.
Alaska Airlines brought the first fish to Seattle two weeks ago, unloading 20,000 pounds of just-caught Copper River salmon at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Some 60,000 pounds followed on three more flights that day. Every year, Alaska Air Cargo works with Alaska's three largest seafood processors to bring the fish to Seattle and Anchorage, where it's then shipped to restaurants and groceries throughout the country. The company celebrates the first fish touching down in Seattle with a cook-off that this year pitted Ethan Stowell, John Howie, and Sam Burkhart (Etta's and Seatown Seabar Restaurant) against each other in an Iron Chef-style showdown.
That's a lot of noise for a fish, and it wasn't always so celebrated. "In the 1980s virtually all the Copper River catch was being exported to Japan at prices so low that fishermen were pulling their boats out of the water and hanging up their nets," reported The Atlantic in a 2010 article.
Alaska's Copper River fishers worked with Seattle seafood business consultant Jon Rowley to get the salmon on regional menus, and together they created one hell of a brand name for the fish. Today, plates of Copper River salmon commands restaurant prices several dollars higher than salmon from anywhere else.
Several elements are said to contribute to the fish's outstanding taste. The fishers, in an effort to preserve quality, instituted careful handling practices for netted fish. In addition, rather than freezing the fish before shipment, they're loaded onto planes immediately after being caught.
There's more: "From a culinary point of view, the geography of the Copper River watershed has given its salmon an evolutionary advantage over others. The river is nearly 300 miles long and flows powerfully from glaciers high in the Chugach and St. Elias Wrangell Mountains. The upstream swim to the salmon's natal pools requires enormous exertion, and because salmon stop eating once they re-enter fresh water, they have to rely on huge reserves of built-up fat to fuel their efforts. High-fat content means moist and flavorful flesh," according to The Atlantic.
Whether you buy into the buzz or not, local restaurants are at the ready. Between now and the end of August, depending on how long the run lasts, you can find Copper River salmon at Ray's Boathouse; Eden Hill; Canlis; Ivar's Acres of Clams, Salmon House, and Mukilteo Landing; Elliott's Oyster House; Etta's; Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar; and Ethan Stowell's Staple & Fancy, Marine Hardware, Anchovies & Olives, Goldfinch Tavern, How to Cook a Wolf, and Mkt., among others.