art, science, culture
by Dennis Lloyd Kuklok
Copper River Salmon ... The Best?
I’m reading the book Upstream by Langdon Cook. There is a whole chapter about Copper River Sockeye and Kings. They are a marketing phenomenon, touted as the best tasting salmon. The sockeye, because of their bright red flesh; Kings or Chinooks because of their great size. All the advertising makes one think that there is something special about the Copper River, something which makes these salmon worth the initially very high prices (over $40 per pound).
Alaskan friends, accustomed to salmon from all over the state, just smile when they hear the announcement of the first Copper River fish being shipped down to Seattle. Alaska Airlines has a whole plane (with a plane-sized salmon painted on its side) dedicated to hauling Alaskan salmon to markets south. To most Alaskans, there is no difference, fish caught on the Kenai or Bristol Bay or Admiralty Inlet all are as good as those from the Copper River. Indeed some Alaskans prefer Kuskokwim River Chums or Yukon River White Kings, or Clarence Strait Coho.
The success of the Copper River brand is due to a an astute marketing strategy developed back in the early 1980’s. Before then, Copper River salmon was canned, or shipped in bulk to Japan at discounted prices. Fishermen in Cordova were not making much money, many considering getting out. A few though, believed in the quality of their product. After all, Copper River fish were some of the first to spawn in Alaska, a factor which could be played up. And, they were rich in oils, since the journey upriver demanded it (salmon do not eat once they enter fresh water to spawn). And the markets were changing; consumer demand for quality salmon was growing and some chefs were featuring it on their menus.
Creating the Copper River “brand” was the result of three factors. First, Jon Rowley, a marketing whiz out of Seattle got key Seattle restauranteurs to buy Copper River Fish. Second, Cordovan fishermen changed their practices to maintain and extra high product (immediate bleeding and icing fish once caught in nets, and getting it to processing plants quickly). Finally, Alaska Airlines joined in by flying fish to Seattle and other markets, usually within 24 hours. Thus, consumers became accustomed to fresh fish, and began to pay more for it.
And, the origin of the fish was noted at every possible turn (menu’s, fish markets, wholesale outlets), such that people knew what a Copper River fish was.
Today, fresh caught fish transported by air make it possible for people all over the country to know about and enjoy this product. Around May each year, people await this year's catch, willing to pay the higher prices. And, supermarket chains such as Safeway and QFC always have highly discounted prices, making people think they are getting a really good deal (which they are).
This year (2019) the first Copper River sockeye and Chinook shipment (18,000 pounds) from Cordova Alaska arrived to cameras and fanfare on May 20th at SeaTac Airport.
Still, the most sophisticated processing and marketing techniques require wild fish, and there the news is not so upbeat.
According to undercurrentnews.com, one of the best seafood information websites directed at the food industry, this year’s sockeye runs are projected to be 39% below their 10 year average. Last year was the second worst year in history with only 44,318 caught out of a rosy projection of 942,000 fish.
Much of this decline is attributed to the “blob” effect.
ADF&G (Alaska Department of Fish and Game) is expecting strong pink and chum runs this year to compensate for the low number of sockeye and kings.
I’ll wager that people won’t be paying $40 per pound at the market for pinks and chums, though, maybe they should be. Fresh wild salmon are a bargain at any price.
Dennis Lloyd Kuklok
Rocky Brook. August, 2019