Running wild

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

Jeff Phillips

Following the fleet

The sockeye fishing in the delta that morning had been lousy. "We've missed the tail of the run," Covel had shouted above the roar of the boat as he steered us to the rougher seaward side of Grass Island. The Copper isn't Alaska's longest river, but it is big, fast, and, because it's mostly glacier-fed, cold. Salmon here pack a lot of extra fat for the arduous trip back to their ancestral spawning beds and for that reason have a very high oil content, giving Copper River salmon their renowned firm, deep-red flesh and rich flavor.

The commercial salmon-fishing season isn't allowed to start here until the Alaska Department of Fish and Game gives the go-ahead. A sonar station 30 miles upriver, at the Million Dollar Bridge, tracks the runs, and once it shows that enough fish are making it upstream to spawn, the commercial fishery can operate for periods of at least 12 hours before stopping to allow the upriver count to rise again.

Covel is not happy with Fish and Game. "They want the official count of fish passing the sonar station," he says. "Problem is, it takes the fish a week to get up the river to the sonar. By then it's over down here."

Dan Gray is the state fisheries biologist who helps decide when the sonar count is high enough to permit fishing; he's not in an enviable position. "When I took this job, I was introduced at a community meeting as the most powerful man in town," he says. "What it means is that I'm not the most popular man in town."

For Gray, it all boils down to numbers. Last year, for example, the goal was to allow 651,500 fish to go upriver: 317,500 to spawn and sustain the runs, the rest reserved for the federal- and state-determined subsistence catch, which was increased recently to allow more Alaskans to take hundreds of fish for personal use. "Salmon returns naturally fluctuate in 30-year cycles, so a period of low returns doesn't leave much for the commercial fishery," Gray acknowledges.

Next: Wild versus farmed 

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