The salmon season has officially started in Alaska! The small fleet of independent fishermen who have harvested salmon for generations from the pristine glacial waters near the Copper River have returned to the fishing grounds to catch the first kings and sockeyes of the summer. Rising out of the Copper Glacier and untouched wilderness of southcentral Alaska, the Copper River is one of the last untouched watersheds in the world. The river flows for 300 miles from its headwaters through the Chugach and Wrangell mountains to the central coast where it empties into the Gulf of Alaska. The Copper River remains a salmon stronghold, untouched by municipalities, dams or mines, thanks to the work of conservation groups.
Last week, the fleet raced from the harbor in Cordova, Alaska to the fishing grounds for the first opener. The boats in this gillnet fishery are called bowpickers and are usually run by one or two fishermen. The nets themselves extend 150 fathoms (or 900 feet) from the bow of the boat and hang vertically in the water, like a wall in front of salmon swimming by. As they swim through the net, the salmon’s head and gills becomes entangled in the net which makes it possible for fishermen to pull them aboard and pick them, one at a time, from the net. Fishing time and area is limited and managed scientifically by Alaska Department of Fish and Game to ensure abundant future salmon stocks. Sometimes openers last 12 hours, sometimes 24, 36 or more–which means fishermen continue working around the clock to pull in fresh, wild salmon, day and night.
The salmon caught in Copper River are handled with extreme care on their journey from the ocean to plate. Immediately after they are hand-harvested from the net, they are bled to maintain the pure wild taste Alaska salmon is known for, chilled with flaked ice and sea water, and then delivered in small batches to be processed and shipped within hours to stores and restaurants within and outside of Alaska. The fleet takes pride in caring for their catch to ensure consistent quality throughout the season.
King and sockeye salmon are the first fish making their way back to the Copper River in May. The king salmon run lasts through June, the sockeye run through July, and coho return to the river in August and September. These three wild Alaska salmon species live as adults in the Gulf of Alaska and in the Pacific Ocean eating small crustaceans and zooplankton before they return to the Copper River to make the 300-mile migration up the turbulent waters, through deltas, forests, and mountains to spawn. Because the Copper River is so long and steep (an average elevation gain of 12 feet per mile) these fish must pack on sufficient fat reserves to fuel their epic journey–resulting in salmon that is rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and flavorful oils.
Our family joined the Copper River fishing fleet last year when Emma and her partner Jacob invested in a gillnet boat and permit. Claire joined for the second opener and we all got to be part of the magic of catching the first salmon of the season together. It’s pretty incredible to work on the water against a backdrop of snowy mountains and glaciers, with seabirds dancing overhead and whales breaching on the horizon. The sockeyes are fat, strong and blue green this summer and the king salmon come aboard literally sparkling. We’re settling into the routine of setting the net, picking the net, our hearts filling with gratitude with every fish that comes aboard and excitement to share our wild catch with the world.
Find out where you can purchase Copper River salmon direct from fishermen here, and learn more about the Copper River salmon fishery. Thank you for supporting Alaskan fishermen and their families who work hard to harvest wild seafood responsibly. For salmon recipes, try these!