Copper River salmon makes splash in Seattle

Anders Miller, a manager at Pike Place Fish Market, talks with a customer in Seattle on Saturday, May 19, 2018. (Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times)

Cordova’s docks bustled with activity the day before the first Copper River salmon opener, with fishermen mending nets, gathering supplies and prepping boats.

The hum of engines filled the air as bowpickers left for the flats on Wednesday, May 16, disappearing into tiny dots lining the horizon.

Fishermen filled the Copper River flats for the season opener, and by 6:30 a.m. on Friday, May 18, the newly harvested sockeyes and Chinooks arrived in Seattle to much fanfare and a media frenzy. Salmon lovers headed for Seattle’s restaurants and markets for a taste of the fresh salmon.

From tarmac to plate

An Alaska Airlines freighter, sporting an image of a wild 129-foot long Alaska king salmon across the length of the jet, arrived at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport early on May 18.

It rolled up to a red carpet, where the sound of media camera shutters and live broadcasts nearly drowned out the sound of the engine. The plane door opened and within seconds, there appeared a smiling pilot, hoisting a 31-pound Copper River king salmon into the air.

He and his co-pilot descended the stairs onto the red carpet, where they were greeted by Trident Seafoods employees and a swarm of cameras.

The fanfare continued as the salmon made its way across the tarmac and eventually onto the grills of three chefs competing in Alaska Airlines’ ninth annual Copper Chef Cook-Off.

Trident’s Jim Lagucik filleted the salmon. After a few  cuts, the silver outside gave way to a bright orange inside.

“I first got involved with Copper River salmon in the early ‘90s,” Lagucik said. “(I) had an opportunity to take a chef from Ray’s Boathouse up there and…kind of get familiar with the fishery up there. Then, we brought the first fish down to Seattle and flew it into Ray’s Boathouse. That was 30 years ago, it wasn’t a big crowd like it is today.”

Separate stations were set up for chefs Chris Bryant of WildFin American Grill, John Sundstrom of Lark, Slab Sandwiches + Pie, and Southpaw, and Paul Duncan of Ray’s Boathouse & Café, who worked quickly to compose a dish for the waiting crowd.

When the votes were tallied about an hour later, Bryant had won the 2018 Copper Chef Cook-Off.

Later, during the Friday night dinner rush at Seattle’s upscale Lark restaurant, entrées featuring Copper River salmon fillets and salmon tartare stood out, accented by the white tablecloth table tops.

“It’s nice that the restaurant pays attention to where things come from,” said Carl Karplus, as he ate dinner with his wife, Erika. “They are doing an impressive job in this world today…they’re taking…good care of it,” said Erika Karplus of the fishermen.

Copper River salmon arrives at Pike Place Market

By Saturday, May 19, the first Copper River salmon of the season were already chilled on ice at numerous vendors throughout Pike Place Market.

At the world famous Pike Place Fish Market, crowds gathered to watch fishmongers tossing fish and interacting with customers.

In a small corner near the back of the market, lists of order sheets for hundreds of people rested on a table near the computer where manager Anders Miller sat.

“I’m down here in Seattle and I’ve been able to work here for almost 20 years because there’s salmon out there and because people in Alaska care about how they’re harvested and they make sure to keep it sustainable which is super important to us,” Miller said.

Miller was able to visit Cordova for this year’s opener, a trip he valued greatly.

“I didn’t realize how just big and vast…those flats are,” he said. “No wonder those fish are awesome; that is like a hell of a thing to try to navigate.”

Being there, said Miller, gave him a new perspective.

“Just going there and putting it all to scale like it just made it really real and I realized it’s not…a big corporate kinda thing,” he said. “It’s just families supporting their family and doing some work to sustain the town and the world.”

Jona Taylor came to purchase 10 pounds of Copper River salmon to take home to Hawaii, and ducked as a fish flew overhead on her way out.

Alabama residents Diana and Brandon Browning ordered Copper River salmon, crab, black cod and halibut to take home with them for their four boys. They said they value the local fish and freshness of it, something they aren’t able to get back home.

For Seattle residents James and Diana Camp, Copper River salmon is tradition.

“We know when it’s his birthday, the Copper River is here,” she said, as they waited for their Copper River fillet, an annual purchase in celebration of James’ birthday.

Copper River salmon is more than a fish in the Pacific Northwest. It is rooted in tradition, livelihood, and celebration, connecting people from across the world.

“I believe it’s important because it lets people connect with the fishery and a river and a system and Alaska,” Lagucik said. “I believe that in Alaska we have a great story to share. And I think that when we get to share those stories with consumers all around the country or all around the world, it’s just great news for not only Copper River salmon but all of Alaska and wild seafood.”

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Emily Mesner is a staff reporter and photographer for The Cordova Times. Reach her at emesner@thecordovatimes.com. Emily graduated from Central Michigan University, earning a degree in photojournalism with a cultural competency certificate. She first visited Alaska in 2016, working as a media intern for the National Park Service in Kotzebue and Denali National Park and Preserve, and has been coming back ever since. To see more photos, follow @thecordovatimes and @emilymesnerphoto on Instagram.