With the opening of the 2023 Copper River salmon fishery, the Copper River Prince William Sound Marketing Association (CRPWSMA) is marking the 40th anniversary of when Copper River king salmon made the leap from cans into fresh distribution.
Prior to 1983, the succulent kings were caught, processed and tucked into cans for domestic markets, with just a small amount shipped frozen to Japan, CRPWSMA notes.
As American consumers’ taste in seafood expanded, there was an increased interest in wild and unique foods, so a small cadre of Copper River fishermen decided to take the risk and started handling the fish differently and shipping them fresh to select markets in the Lower 48.
They worked closely with Seattle seafood and restaurant consultant Jon Rowley, who knew the oil-rich salmon was genetically superior and eminently marketable. Rowley worked directly with fishermen to improve quality and handling, and to bring the salmon to Seattle restaurants quickly after it was harvested, CRPWSMA said.
Veteran Copper River commercial fishermen Jerry McCune noted in an interview with CRPWSMA that improving quality of the fresh fish going to retail markets required the fishermen to adjust what they were doing and how much fish they were catching. They had to take unprecedented steps to bleed, clean and ice the fish on board their vessels to maintain the quality of the fish. They were also the ones who had to secure air transport into and out of Cordova to get those fish delivered to Seattle and elsewhere in top condition.
“The end result of this whole thing was that we broke the market and proved we could get fish out fresh and of high quality,” McCune said.
“As this momentous season launches here in Cordova, we are so pleased that we could revisit and share the history of how the revered Copper River king salmon made a leap into a new realm,” said Christa Hoover, executive director of CRPWSMA. “Conducting oral interviews and digging through historical archives, it has been incredibly satisfying to see how the fishery has evolved and yet remained steadfastly committed to qualify for the consumer.”