Every restaurant in town it seems is advertising “Copper River Salmon” this spring and it’s not just the eateries. The grocers from Seattle to San Diego are in full swing with QFC, Costco, and Safeway leading the pack. In Seattle, Whole Food’s is charging a premium for “Copper River Salmon” and “Fresh Copper River fillets”.
I wonder if these retailers know the salmon they are selling are most likely fry hatched from one of 5 hatcheries located in the Copper Delta, and have nothing to do with the infamous Copper River. Most people never have had the privilege to eat, or let alone fish for these legendary fish because for almost 30 years the fishery has been closed. The locals have to ask permission unless of course you belong to the native tribe that controls the river. Fishing has long been closed in the “one and only” Copper River.
The Copper river name comes for the abundant copper deposits along the upper river that were used by the native population and then later by settlers from the Russian Empire and the United States. Extraction of the copper resources was rendered difficult by navigation difficulties at the river’s mouth. The construction of the Copper River Railway from Cordova through the upper river valley in 1908-11 allowed widespread extraction of the mineral resources, in particular from the Kennecott Mine discovered in 1898. The mine was abandoned in 1938 and is now a ghost town tourist attraction. A road runs from Cordova to the lower Copper River near Child’s Glacier, following the old railroad route and ending at the reconstructed “Million Dollar Bridge” across the river. The road was recently made famous when it was used to film the music video “Windey Road” by Alaskan recording artist Phil Fischer.
The taste of the salmon that run in the Copper river have long been the source of legends for years. The salmon, in route to their spawning grounds, feed on the green moss which grows along the rocks near the glacier, which then turns the meat a pinkish green, with a one of a kind nutty, knock-out taste. The salmon being sold as “copper river salmon” have little to do with these legendary fish and many Alaskan’s have been emailing me fed up with the marketing ploy.
“There are people going to Safeway thinking they are really buying Copper River Salmon!” said Mark Reynolds, an Bellevue resident born and raised in Cordova. “It used to be casually mentioned, but now its getting completely out of control. You cant buy copper river salmon. Even the hatcheries are not from Copper River fry” Reynold’s explained.
Yes, there is commercial fishing that thrives in the “Copper River Delta” thanks to the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation that runs the five hatcheries, including the Gulkana hatchery, which provides Copper River red salmon. Also, PSWAC hatcheries catch and sell a portion of the returning salmon as cost recovery to offset their operating costs. For the Gulkana hatchery, cost recovery actually takes place in Prince William Sound with Prince William Sound fish, leaving more salmon available for sport, personal use and subsistence.
Whatever the reasons why everyone “goes with the flow” probably have allot to do with the State of Alaska wanting to protect that fishery.