Copper River wild salmon fishery off to a slow start

First harvest comes in below ADF&G forecast for Chinooks, sockeyes

Alaska Airlines’s Salmon-Thirty-Salmon jet arrives at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with fresh wild Copper River sockeye and Chinook salmon heading for Pacific and midwestern markets. Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines/Jane Gershovich

Drift gillnetters out on the first Copper River opener of the 2021 wild salmon fishery harvested an estimated 1,957 Chinook, 8,197 sockeye and 173 chum salmon, and within 24 hours much of the catch was delivered to Seattle via Alaska Airlines’s “Salmon-Thirty-Salmon” jet.

Airline officials said the first flight brought in 17,000 pounds of wild Alaska king and red salmon headed for markets in Seattle, Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.

When the jet, painted to look like a gigantic king salmon, arrived at SeaTac, Alaska Airlines Captain Tim deal, with First Officer Bill Jacobson, held up a sample of the catch, a 37-pound Chinook salmon.

“Today we’re flying nearly 55,000 pounds of Copper River salmon from Cordova, Alaska, to Seattle by Alaska Air Cargo, the first of many shipments expected this season,” the airline blogged.

The 12-hour season opener on Monday, May 17, proved “smaller than expected, but better than last year,” said veteran Cordova harvester Bill Webber of Paradigm Seafoods, LLC. “The fleet was definitely in front of the run,” he said. “For some reason in the last 20 years the run in the early season has shifted to the east. Back in the 1970s and 1980s it used to be stronger on the west end of the Delta.”

From left, Alaska Airlines Captain Tim Deal and First Officer Bill Jacobson deliver the first Copper River Chinook salmon personally from the airline’s Salmon-Thirty-Salmon jet at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Tuesday, May 18. The fish weighed in at 37 pounds. Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines/Jane Gershovich

The long-time seafood business relationship between Alaska Airlines and seafood processors brings thousands of pounds of fish fresh from the waters of Prince William Sound to the marketplace. The airline prides itself on a cool chain training program required of all airline employees who handle perishables. Employees must follow strict seafood quality standards and pass an annual food safety course, assuring that their valuable cargo stays within a consistent temperature range from the time it leaves the water to when it arrives at stores and restaurants.

According to Jeremy Botz, gillnet area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Cordova, kings and reds in the first harvests weighed in at 12.63 pounds and 5.13 pounds respectively, a little below average. A decision on a second harvest opportunity for the commercial fleet on Thursday, May 20, is expected on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 19.