To learn more about the complex biology and economics of the Pacific wild salmon industry, I traveled to Cordova, Alaska with a small group of food writers and chefs. It was my first visit to this magnificent state and, though much too short, I came away with a much better understanding of the culture, economics and traditions of its wild salmon. The best part was going fishing in groups of two and three with some of the local fishermen who mostly work solo in small boats just beyond the barrier islands that protect the entrance to the Copper River Delta. Copper River salmon are rightly prized worldwide because of the high fat content developed by these fish that must swim an astonishing 300 miles upstream without feeding at all to reach their spawning grounds.
As a life-long wild salmon lover, it was my pleasure to get to go out on a fishing boat to see for myself how the fish are caught, handled, and then processed for shipping to happy customers like myself. I went out on fisherwoman Thea Thomas’ small cheery turquoise painted boat. Like most people fishing in the area, Thomas uses a gillnet to catch her fish. This is her 24th season fishing for salmon. A few larger boats fish with purse seines and a larger crew to handle the larger, heavier purse seine nets. A gillnet is similar to a badminton net with lead weights all along the bottom and resting on the ocean floor, which is shallow in the bay, and floats along the top edge, the net is held in place at either end with buoys. The fish swim into the net and are caught by their gills. She will do a number of sets in a day, each time catching some of the salmon that are running–in our case it was sockeye and pinks, though the sockeyes are worth much more money.
During the carefully regulated salmon season, Thomas, like other fishermen, will stay on her boat overnight to catch as many fish as possible. However, in order to keep stocks healthy, Alaska uses “regulated inefficiency.” Fishing is permitted only at certain times and in certain areas so that one area might open for 6 or 36 hours. The numbers of fishing permits are strictly limited as well.
When I asked Thomas about the material her nets are made from, she told me that they are only allowed to use multiple filament line because mono-filament is almost invisible to the fish and too many are caught. Sustainability is written into the state of Alaska’s constitution and only 570 gillnet permits are available in the area. Large tender boats wait out in the bay and pick up the fish, supply the fishermen with that all-important ice, and bring them food to eat. This year, there were few king salmon, the salmon species that fetches the highest price because of its large size and super-high fat content. However, sockeyes and pinks were running well with the season for Coho (or silver) salmon still to come.
We also met with Bert Lewis, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who explained to us how the state is working to maintain healthy, sustainable stocks of wild salmon in the Copper River Delta, the adjacent Prince William Sound, and elsewhere in the state. Because the lifecycle of salmon is so complex, this is not an easy job. The salmon start their life in fresh water, live and feed in salt water and then return to their freshwater birthplace to spawn. The Department maintains fish hatcheries and releases them as needed to bring to stock levels up. However, there is no hatchery for king salmon, because they grow so slowly. We also visited one of the town’s salmon processing plants, Copper River Seafoods, where we saw those same firm, deep orange-red sockeyes being filleted, mostly by machine, and then cold and hot-smoked over alderwood–delicious!
Though the small town of Cordova, Alaska has a population of just 2, 372, it is ranked among the top ten US ports in value of the fish landed there. This was my view from my hotel window–hundreds of small fishing boats with the dramatic low, gray clouds typical of Cordova’s weather. I’m so glad I brought my warm jacket–with weather in Philadelphia topping 100 degrees, it was difficult to imagine cold and damp.
After an all-too-short visit, I traveled home with a box of filleted and vacuum-packed sockeye salmon from those fish we had caught, frozen and boxed with freezer gel-packs that kept the fish in pristine condition all the way to my home in Philadelphia almost 24 hours later. Now I have the fun of cooking the salmon and sharing it with friends. I’ve already grilled it, made salmon salad, and salmon cakes. Next on my list: Scandinavian gravlax with dill, ground coriander, brown sugar, and sea salt.