Running wild

Why Copper River salmon is worth $20 a pound, and why it may disappear forever

Jeff Phillips

"This is going to be tricky," says George Covel as he guns the engine of his 30-foot aluminum jet boat and turns toward the beach. Cresting over the back of a wave, the boat plunges into a trough and rides up the back of another swell, crashing through into another trough. The deck is awash with the cold, gray waters of Alaska's Copper River Delta.

Tucked into the remote southeast corner of Alaska's Prince William Sound, the delta is a 700,000-acre wetland of rivers, sloughs, and ponds that, in spring, make up one of North America's major waterfowl staging areas.

The delta is dominated by the Copper River ― itself roughly 10 miles wide near its mouth ― which pours into the Gulf of Alaska between massive, ever-shifting islands of sand the river has carried from glaciers far upstream.

In one of the wildest and most unforgiving places on the planet, these are the waters Covel and the fishing fleet of the town of Cordova ply for Copper River salmon, a fish valued by chefs for a flavor and texture that are distinctive to this glacial river. These qualities are so prized that the Copper River king commands more than $20 per pound at the market.

Ever since the last Ice Age, salmon have returned to Western rivers to battle their way upstream ― in some cases traveling more than a thousand miles ― to spawn and then die. It is an annual rite that has sustained wildlife ranging from bears to bald eagles. And salmon have nourished many Native American tribes for countless generations ― as food, as artistic inspiration, and as a religious symbol. The salmon is as much an icon of the West as the grizzly bear.It wasn't all that long ago that these fish teemed in most of the West's coastal rivers and were the mainstay of a major industry.

Today, runs of wild salmon are fast disappearing from rivers in Washington, Oregon, and California. Overfishing, dams, development, pollution, and water diversions have all taken their toll on the West's once-thriving fishing industry. Alaska may stand as the last viable wild salmon fishery. And here, in this overlooked corner of our largest state, may lie the best hope for the future of wild salmon.

Next: Following the fleet 

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