Copper River Salmon. It’s time!

by Matt on May 18, 2012

The efforts to fish and preserve this food source lie in the delicate balance of Mother Nature and the lifelong dedication of a group of some pretty special people.

“You really have to want to be here, in Cordova,” I heard from more than just one person. “You don’t accidentally stumble or end up here. But if this place speaks to you, you might just never leave.”

This was one of the first things I learned when I visited Cordova, Alaska last summer as a guest of the Copper River Marketing Organization. I thought I knew the fish well, both as a cook and from my food marketing days, but my knowledge didn’t even touch the tip of the iceberg when it came to understanding sustainability, geography, the life span of salmon and how much work it takes to bring this noble fish to market.

I also could never have prepared myself for Alaska’s arresting beauty.

A huge part of what makes these salmon so special is their home. They spawn here, then travel outside of the Copper River to live and grow but make their way back after several years, traveling hundreds of miles to return. The river snakes via various tributaries, and it is this long passage that requires the salmon to store plenty of extra omega-3 fatty acids in their bodies. This is what makes them desirable, delicious, and worth preserving. More on that in a bit.

While there are 5 varieties of Alaskan salmon, Copper River salmon means King, Sockeye and Coho (or silver). Each variety has their own qualities in regards to shape, size, and abundance in terms of harvest. But if you ask me to pick a favorite, well, I can’t. I’ll take any of them, any day of the week.

And then there’s the sustainability. Rarely have I seen the idea and practice of sustainability in such a holistic form; it is everything these people do. It has to be if they are to preserve a species that supplies us food but takes years to grow. Their attempts are nothing short of miraculous.

Salmon are caught during something called a Run, with very distinct starting and stopping points set up during each run. Runs are determined by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADF&G. The ADF&G set the run times, which are anywhere from 12 to 72 hours long and based on a very accurate fish count. Counts are made via underwater sonar, monitored by people in shifts, and fishcounts are also made from planes flying over fishing grounds. Based on how many fish escape into the wild and how many are returning to spawn determines just how many fish can be caught. This strict adherence guarantees that there will be enough fish not only for next year’s harvest but also for generations to come.

And then there’s Cordova itself. A small town at the base of the Copper River, it’s a rugged place with a vast waterfront that rests in front of deep green mountains. It’s serene in summer and not-so-forgiving in winter. I was reminded by the residents that my visit occurred during the best possible time of the year, giving me warm sunlight and tranquil winds which allowed me plenty of memorable photo moments. The late day sun never went down, allowing me plenty of beer time, too. I spent the first few nights with my curtains open, the novelty of sun at 1am making me smile until the effects of disturbed sleep took its toll by the third day. I eventually learned to make peace with a sun that never quite went away. It’s glorious and made me giddy.

And just who are these people who spend their days doing the hard work so that we can eat these fish? They’re wonderful people from all over, some of those same people who stopped by once and never left. They’re gracious, gregarious, elegant even. The opposite of the salty fisherman stereotype, at least to me. And they made me love Cordova and all that it is, or at least what I learned about her in my short time there. The magic of the land doesn’t stop with the earth – it flows straight through the residents.

I dream of returning one day, of drinking beer at 10:30pm in the sunlight, of learning more about Copper River Salmon, of finally pulling my own weight on Kim’s boat and not turning green and clammy (sorry, Kim!) and maybe to repay the generosity of Mother Nature and the people of Cordova, Alaska.

I’ll start by eating more fish.

Copper River Salmon season is underway. To find it near you, visit Copper River Salmon.org and click here. For disclosure purposes, I was a guest of Copper River last year and have done work for the California Avocado Commission which has worked with Copper River Salmon for cross-promotions. In fact, the big giant recipe on the main page is mine. All opinions expressed in this post are my own, photography is copyright me me me. Thank you!

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Averie @ Averie Cooks May 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm

Matt the images are just…so gorgeous! My husband used to do business in Alaska and he’d tell me how amazingly beautiful it is up there and also brought back some salmon once…to die for. Thanks for this beautiful post!

Will @ Bright.Bazaar May 18, 2012 at 2:43 pm

I love being by the water – divine!

Nisrine May 19, 2012 at 7:25 am

Matt, the pictures are so beautiful. I hope to visit Alaska one day.

laura h May 20, 2012 at 9:45 am

So what dates were you there? For my future travel plans. :)

Karista's Kitchen May 20, 2012 at 5:06 pm

Fantastic post Matt! Absolutely breathtaking photographs! I live in Seattle and I’m always amazed by the beauty that surrounds this corner of the world, especially BC and North to Alaska. Just had some Copper River Salmon yesterday. Delicious :)

Joelen Tan May 21, 2012 at 5:01 am

Love your post! You brought me back to when I was there myself shortly after Labor Day weekend last year. :)

Pandy May 21, 2012 at 7:45 am

Next up…copper river salmon recipes??

Lindsey (Cafe Johnsonia) May 23, 2012 at 4:38 pm

This is fantastic! I’m one of the Fresh Catch Crew for Copper River Salmon this year and so excited for my fish to arrive! This gets me even more excited. I’m dying to visit Alaska. Your pictures, as always, are gorgeous!

Fernanda Seabra May 24, 2012 at 6:48 am

Fell in love with your blog.
I am a young brazilian chef and will follow your updates regularly now. Keep posting these amazing things!

Tuuli May 24, 2012 at 9:09 am

Beautiful pictures and I just had copper river salmon and it was to die for, thank you for all the great info!

sally cameron May 25, 2012 at 9:27 am

Hi Matt. We did an Alaska trip about 5 years ago. It is amazingly beautiful, as you said. We go to tour a fishery and were so impressed at how they run things. Your trip looks terrific! Thanks for the great story and photos, as always. We are salmon lovers and my fish market just sent an email that Copper River is available! Off to the market. I reposted this link on my Facebook page for my readers!

SMITH BITES June 8, 2012 at 8:11 am

Hailing from Washington State, i’m almost embarrassed to say that i never made it to Alaska – oh so close, yes? but reading this piece with your photos makes me feel as if i’ve just experienced the journey with you . . . and now i want to go! gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous!

eric vanthorre June 16, 2012 at 8:18 pm

Wonderful homage to Alaska, nature and this salmon that has been the staple and most nutritious food of our region – you tale and pictures invites to carefully appreciate all that.

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