Copper River Salmon Story
Copper River salmon are wild, natural, Alaskan salmon known for their exceptional quality. The state of Alaska is responsible for management of Copper River salmon. Alaska constitution mandates that salmon management and fishing will remain sustainable . Prior to Alaska ‘s achieving statehood in 1959, salmon were under federal management and populations were in rapid decline. Since statehood salmon have been protected by law and both spawning and harvesting numbers have increased. The Copper River salmon fishery, like other Alaskan salmon fisheries, is certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. The number one management priority is escapement, where enough salmon are allowed to return to their spawning grounds each year to ensure healthy, sustainable runs in the future. Once this escapement is achieved other user groups are allowed to harvest some of the salmon.
These user groups include subsistence, sport and commercial fishermen. If enough salmon haven’t traveled up-river to spawn no one is allowed to fish. Only after all other user group needs are met are commercial fishermen allowed to fish. In the Pacific there are five species of salmon: king or Chinook, red or sockeye, silver or coho, chum or keta and pinks or humpies. All five species belong to the family salmonidae and the genus Oncorhynchus, onco meaning hook or barb and rhino meaning nose. Alaska salmon are anadromous , spawning in fresh water and migrating to the sea where they mature and later return to the stream or lake where they emerged two to six years earlier. As the time to spawn draws near the fish will darken and pronounced morphological changes will occur. Males in particular will develop a hooked upper jaw and sharp upper and lower canine teeth. The female will dig a redd (nest) and lay the eggs, the male will fertilize them and soon after both will die to provide nutrients for the emerging young salmon and others in the food chain.
Three salmon are indigenous to the Copper River : king, sockeye and coho. Once the sockeye and king salmon reach the mouth of the mighty Copper their journey has just begun. In their quest for spawning grounds they will travel 300 miles and gain 3,600 feet in elevation. Second in silt content only to the Amazon, the Copper River carries 70 million tons of glacial silt a day to the ocean. Upon entering fresh water the salmon will stop feeding as they begin the final leg of their journey to the place of their birth. The fat content found in wild salmon is directly related to the length and difficulty of their journey. Mother nature has prepared Copper River salmon for their long, difficult journey by providing an extra layer of nutrient rich fat full of heart healthy Omega 3’s . It is this fat layer that provides the full-bodied flavor, color and richness of the Copper River kings and sockeye.
Management of the Copper River is exceptional. Fishing time and allowable harvest is determined using historical data, catch ratios, aerial surveys and actual hand and sonar counts of the salmon as they swim upstream. Natural systems are not stagnant so management is done on a day to day and hour to hour basis, continually adjusting to changes as they occur. The natural fish population dictates the catch and commercial harvest is adjusted to maintain escapement. This is why openers, the allowable fishing time, are so variable in duration and occurrence. Duration can vary from 6-48 hours and openers can occur 1-2 times per week or not at all. Copper River salmon have been harvested for 112 years and the future of the salmon runs is the most important management factor to the biologists and the fishermen. This intense management enables the Copper River fishery to produce some of the finest salmon in the world.
Harvest begins in mid-May with kings and sockeye and ends in October with coho. The annual sockeye harvest averages around 900,000 salmon. All of Alaska , including the Copper River and Prince William Sound , is managed under a limited entry permit system. That is, only so many permits are available in each area. These permits are allowed to be purchased only by individuals. No corporations are allowed to hold permits and individuals are allowed only one permit per area. Copper River salmon are harvested by family fishermen; U.S. small business owners who fish for their livelihood. Many fishermen are very involved in conservation efforts . Copper River salmon have been harvested for 112 years. Permits are passed down from generation to generation and it is in everyone’s best interest to make sure there are fish for the future. Respect for the resource is demanded and appreciated by Copper River fishermen.
Unlike some other fisheries Copper River salmon are harvested when they are still bright, their flesh firm and flavorful. Small numbers of salmon are harvested over a long period of time making it possible to care for the catch and produce a quality product. Most Copper River fishermen are based out of Cordova , Alaska, a small rural community approximately 145 miles southeast of Anchorage , accessible only by boat or plane. The Copper River and the Copper River Flats are beautiful and dangerous. One of the only intact watersheds of its size in the world this wild watershed is fed by thousands of glaciers and surrounded by miles of unindustrialized valleys and mountains. We are blessed to be part of a sustainable fishery, and a fishing community that cares about the fish they harvest and their habitat.