Where the Wild Salmon Roam
Recently I traveled to Cordova, which has a population of less than 2,500 and is nestled on the southwestern coast of Alaska between Anchorage and the Canada border, right in the heart of Prince William Sound. Yes, the same Prince William Sound that suffered the Exxon oil spill near Valdez in 1989. Nearly half of Cordova’s economy depends on fishing, and nearly all of its 2,500 well-educated, hardworking and adventurous souls reap the rewards of a bountiful and sustainable salmon industry.
Traveling with me was local San Jose seafood chef Chad Greer of Lark Creek Blue to help raise awareness of the amazing people, ecosystem and salmon that make up what is arguably America’s most famous salmon fishery.
The trip was sponsored by the Copper River/Prince William Sound (PWS) Marketing Association, which is the state-chartered Regional Seafood Development Association for Prince William Sound fisheries. Their job is to maximize the value of seafood harvested from the Copper River and Prince William Sound region through effective marketing, quality enhancement, cooperative partnerships and organizational competency. The state only has 541 licenses for this fleet, and they cannot be run by corporations. So they are run by individuals and families, most of whom have been in it for generations.
The Cordova/Copper River fleet is unique because of its focus on quality salmon species like King, Sockeye and Coho; remote and rugged landscape; and artisan fisherman, who all follow a strict sustainability model. Fishermen have open calls from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game as to when they can go out in season. Regulators literally have two people counting salmon moving upstream; once a certain quota is met, fishing windows of 24–48 hours are opened to the fleet—who catch the fish in open water, before they go up the Copper River.
The fishermen take quality of their catch very seriously. The marketing association helps promote and educate the fleet on best practices, including proper icing, bleeding and slushing. All of these techniques allow for the freshest end product, humaneness and continued sustainability for future seasons. These practices, and the overall quality of the fish, make Copper River salmon a favorite of professional chefs and home cooks.
What has always amazed me about the salmon run in Alaska is that all the salmon are anadromous fish, meaning that they reproduce in freshwater, but spend most of their lives out in the sea. The amazing cycle goes like this: Salmon are hatched in freshwater river systems, spend a year there growing, migrate to the deep ocean for one to three years, and then return to their natal stream (literally the same stream or lake where they were hatched. No one knows how they do it exactly). Where they hatched is usually 100–300 miles upstream, and when they reach their natal ground, they spawn and die. The fish are heavy with fat before this grueling journey to ensure they can perform their final act. Fishermen catch them right before they go back up the freshwater system.