Our seafood experts, David and Jeff, were in Alaska late last week to check on (and catch!) this season’s wild Alaskan salmon from the Copper River. Copper River salmon are among the richest, tastiest fish in the world. And they can’t come any fresher—the fish that David and Jeff caught are in our stores right now!
David and I arrived in Cordova, a small fishing village near the mouth of the Copper River in Alaska. The charming town is on an inlet surrounded by majestic mountains. There are no more than a couple thousand people, a harbor full of fishing boats, and a number of docks and processing plants.
After touring one of Copper River Seafoods‘ processing plants, we went to the harbor to speak with a number of fishermen preparing for the Copper River Salmon season opener (Thurs, May 17 at 7 am). Most had gone out early in the morning for the subsistence opener, where locals can catch a small number of salmon for their families. The boats would then leave the harbor as early as that afternoon to stake an area and get ready for the next day’s catch.
The opener is 12 hours, from 7 am to 7 pm. Forecasts look good this year and the estimates are to catch upwards of 1.3 million copper river sockeye (reds) and 27,000 copper river kings. Copper river salmon are some of the most desirable salmon in the world, as the salmon must be strong enough to travel upwards of 300 miles up the river to spawn. As a result, the fish have to store extra oil and fat (Omega 3s) to make their journey, making for some of the best tasting fish.
Following our interviews, David and I boarded a small prop plane to fly over the Copper River. We flew from the gulf, through the inlet, and up the river (about 30 miles up stream). We flew by snow-covered mountains, passed a massive glacier, and spotted bears, eagles, and moose from overhead. The river was fast moving and covered in layers of ice. From a few hundred feet above it was difficult to spot many fish below the surface.
Back on ground we returned to the harbor and shared beers with a number of local fisherman. Everyone talked about their expectations for a good season and the days ahead. We stayed up to 11 pm sitting outside and enjoying the sun (sunset doesn’t occur until after 10:30pm) before calling it an early night.
Early Thursday morning, around 5:30 am, David and I awoke from our hotel and chartered a float plane to fly over the entire fishing ground and observe the season opener. 500 small vessels, manned by one or two fishermen, no more than 32 feet in length each, set out over a 50 mile distance to drop their nets and fish for salmon. The fishermen set out gillnets, made up of six inch mesh squares that span 900 feet wide and 20 feet deep. Throughout the course of a 12 hour opening, fisherman will set their nets upwards of a dozen times throughout the day in hopes of pulling up the prized Copper River Sockeye and King Salmon.
During our trip we learned that the size of the mesh gillnets, along with the fisherman’s knowledge of the area, helps minimize and eliminate bycatch. Optimal mesh sizes are mandated by the fisheries to ensure that smaller fish generally swim through the nets, while larger fish are unable to push their heads through the meshes as far as their gills and are not retained. Observing the days catch firsthand, I would note that the only fish I would see offloaded for the day would be Copper River sockeye and kings. The Alaskan Department of Fish & Game further monitors the number of salmon that head up river (escapement) and manages the duration of fishing openers to carefully manage the long-terms sustainability of the salmon population. The sustainable management practices ensure an abundant supply of wild salmon year in and year out.
Following the morning opener and aerial viewing, David and I boarded a tender boat where the fishermen offload their catch to larger boats, called tenders, before returning to catch more fish. While a smaller fishing boat might be able to hold a few thousand pounds of fish, a tender can pack upwards of a couple hundred thousand pounds of fish. The salmon are transferred via large net baskets from the smaller fisherman vessel to the tender where the weight is recorded. At the end of the day, the tenders then unload the days catch at the docks, where nearby processing facilities are close by to cut, filet, and package the product.
After a hectic day, the season opener closed at 7 pm, and David and I had the opportunity to watch the entire fleet of Copper River fisherman return to the harbor after a successful season opener. What a beautiful site to see as the harbor filled with hundreds of boats! We spoke with a number of happy fishermen about their opening day, many of whom felt they had a successful days catch. One fisherman told us that this was his 55th consecutive year fishing the Copper River salmon opener, and was satisfied with his 400 salmon caught for the day. Another told us he was disappointed in the number of kings caught for the day but believed the king salmon catch would strengthen later in the season.
David and I were exhausted having spent the day on board planes, boats, and fishing docks. We were impressed with the fishermen who had boarded their boats as early as Wednesday afternoon and worked through the season opener until late Thursday night offloading their catch. Working thirty hours straight is not something we’re accustomed to working on-land in NYC.
Before flying home, we had the opportunity to visit the Copper River Seafood’s processing plants in Cordova and Anchorage where we saw the fish filleted and packed for shipment back to FreshDirect the very next day. It’s incredible to see the entire process from start to finish, where fish caught one day is filleted the next and shipped to customers in NYC within less than 24 hours. The process allows us to offer some of the freshest, highest quality Alaskan Salmon to our customers. I hope our customers enjoy it!
*A special thanks to our partners at Copper River Seafoods who graciously spent days teaching us about their business, and for opening their doors to us to document our trip. Scott, Katelin, Weylin, and Jessica – Thank you for your time, shared knowledge, and warm welcome. We look forward to hosting everyone in New York City sometime soon!