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Copper River King Salmon More Rare and Expensive Than Ever

Posted by on Saturday, July 1st, 2017

It’s May and that means the Pacific Northwest (and the San Francisco Bay Area) is celebrating the arrival of the famous Copper River king salmon. These enormous, silver fish have bright red, firm flesh, and a particularly rich flavor because of extra fat the fish store for the exhausting fight upriver to spawn. Copper River kings are so striking and have become so iconic that the very first catch of the season is a worldwide media event. An Alaska airlines pilot delivers the first fish to the Seattle Airport, where three chefs have a cook-off on the tarmac. Photos of the pilot with a behemoth salmon slung over his shoulder become somewhat of an internet sensation, adding to the excitement of the season’s opening.

Image of Copper River king salmon

Trophy King (Chinook) Salmon, Silver color stage. 

Conservation Measures Dampen Celebrations

But this year there is a strong note of anxiety alongside the celebrations. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is predicting the worst run of kings in thirty-two years. The Department has ordered many popular king salmon fishing areas closed, including along the Copper River basin. There is even an emergency petition under consideration to ban the sale of kings, in the name of conservation.
The drastic measures have been a long time coming. According to biologists with the Upper Copper River, king salmon populations across Alaska have been declining for the last five to six years. But 2017 is the first year officials have decided to close all sport fisheries before the season even starts. It’s also the first year subsistence fishermen will only be allowed to take home two kings, on top of other restrictions.

What Do The Restrictions Mean for Price?

The Alaska Dispatch News reports that Alaska’s entire season is expected to reel in just 4,000 king salmon. With such a low number, the fish is being priced very high. The famous Seattle seafood market put the price at $75 a pound this year. San Francisco Bay Area markets that choose to carry the fish can’t afford to price much differently, likely driving away customers on the hunt for king salmon.
But remember, customers are concerned about sustainability too. Simply explain the situation to them, and offer another salmon option. There are great alternatives to Copper River kings that your customers are sure to enjoy.

Overall Season Expected to Remain Strong

Other Alaska salmon varieties have healthy and thriving populations. The Alaska Dispatch News reports that fishery managers expect a Copper River salmon catch of nearly 900,000 sockeyes this season, as well as 207,000 coho salmon. Alaska’s total commercial salmon catch for the year is projected to be 204 million, which is nearly one million more than last year, which came in well over initial projections.

Conservation and the Comeback Trail

Conservation measures have one goal: to bring the king salmon population back to a healthy level, where commercial fisheries, sport fisheries and subsistence fishermen can all enjoy a robust season. Alaska has an especially complicated system of deciding who can fish what, and where. According to Alaska journalist Craig Medred, who has been following the salmon saga closely, the rights of subsistence fishermen will always trump commercial fishermen. He writes that king salmon numbers on the Copper River are so dismal that officials will likely shut it down in the near future, just like they did with the Yukon River.
However, salmon runs in Alaska are far healthier than those in the lower 48 states, which have been declining for the last 160 years, according to experts. And limiting harvests is one of the early steps in restoring populations. The situation is not yet dire enough that officials are considering fish hatcheries or other last-ditch efforts.
The hope from all involved, from Alaska to the San Francisco Bay Area is that this year’s stringent protections lead to better seasons ahead. Until then, local markets would be wise to steer customers looking for kings in another direction, unless those customers are prepared to fork over a good bit of their paycheck for the famous fish.