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Diners, fishermen rejoice over season's first salmon harvest
'It's expensive, but, you know, it's once a year; it sells'

(Published: May 16, 2003)
Copper River mania strikes again.

A day after the start of Alaska's first big summer salmon harvest, Anchorage diners Thursday feasted on prime chinooks and sockeyes, commercial gillnetters in Cordova cashed big paychecks, and grocery shoppers in Seattle eyed king-size retail prices at the fish counter.

Wednesday's 12-hour fishing period did not feature a media-event helicopter race and police escort to get the first fish from net to plate, as seen on past opening days.

But fishermen, chefs and other people said Copper River salmon again proved a coveted rite of spring -- the first salmon run of the year and the brightest light in the state's otherwise dark and demoralized commercial salmon industry.

"I'm just about ready to cut 'em!" Lance Webb, the sous chef at the Anchorage restaurant Simon & Seafort's, said Thursday afternoon as he prepped some succulent chinooks for the evening menu. Just $28.95, said fellow chef Matt Little Dog, for an entree of king salmon grilled with garlic vermouth butter.

As usual, commercial fishermen navigating the treacherous sand bars of the Copper River flats netted a brilliant opening-day payoff. The king, or chinook, salmon paid $5 a pound, while the smaller reds, or sockeye, fetched $2.85. Those prices are only a sliver shy of last year's.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game said the fleet of more than 500 fishing boats probably hauled in about 11,000 kings and 26,000 sockeye during the 12-hour fishing period. State biologists had forecast about 7,000 kings and 31,000 sockeye.

Gillnetters and fish processors said customer demand would have supported a far larger catch of both species. The red catch was disappointing, they said, but the hope is that plenty more sockeye, heading for the Copper River to spawn, will show up in coming weeks.

Pip Fillingham, a fishermen who also owns a share of a Cordova packing plant, said his customers consistently implored: More fish! More fish!

Aboard his 32-foot aluminum boat, the Whatever, he carried a news photographer and two Seattle chefs, one of whom did a live audio feed from the deck with a Seattle television station.

"Boy, if you listened to the phones this morning," Fillingham said Thursday from his packing house office, "there were a lot of disappointed customers because we didn't meet their demands."

Joel Fahland, seafood manager at the upscale Queen Anne Thriftway in Seattle, said, "We weren't able to get as much fish as we wanted."

At his fish counter Thursday morning, only hours after all the nets were pulled on the flats the evening before, Fahland was featuring king fillets for $23.99 a pound and sockeye fillets for $16.99 a pound.

"Seems to be moving," he said. "It is expensive but, you know, it's once a year. It sells."

With savvy marketing and its primo place on the calendar, Copper River fish has generated something of the same kind of consumer lust as other seasonal treats like Georgia's Vidalia onions or French Beaujolais Nouveau wine.

So great is the demand that Alaska Airlines scheduled several extra cargo jets to Cordova for opening day and for the next few Copper River fishing periods to rush out the salmon.

Statewide, the salmon industry has fallen into a blue funk due to overwhelming competition from salmon and trout raised on aquatic farms in such countries as Chile. Fish farming is not legal here, and most Alaska salmon fishermen from Ketchikan to Kotzebue just don't get what they used to for wild salmon.

But on opening day at the Copper River, at least, salmon still pays -- and pays big.

"I know there were some guys who had some pretty decent paydays for the first time in several months," said Steve Smith, a fish buyer and resident of the isolated port of Cordova, hub of the Copper River fleet. "In Cordova, that first opener is always a welcome event. We don't have a lot of ways to garner income."

Of course, the main point of Copper River salmon is to eat it. And hopefully at a decent price.

At 2 p.m. Thursday, Billy Green, the seafood manager for the New Sagaya grocery stores in Anchorage, was getting ready to head over to the airport to pick up 1,250 pounds of Copper kings and reds.

He hadn't yet set a price, but he called the Seattle prices ridiculous.

"I guarantee I'll be beating those prices," he said.
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