Running wild

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

Jeff Phillips

Wild versus farmed

When Covel said he'd try his luck close to the beach, he meant it; the crash of the surf is loud when he finally stops the boat. Releasing the net buoy from the bow, he begins feeding out 900 feet of net as he reverses the engine and bulldozes backward through the breakers. Spray breaks over the boat's stern. "Conditions out here can be treacherous," says Covel. "It seems like we still lose one or two guys every year."

Despite its prominence, the Copper River fishery is ― like many Western salmon fisheries ― mostly a mom-and-pop industry. Many of Cordova's 500 boats are like Covel's ― rugged gill-netters that one person can work.

Slipping on gloves, Covel throws a lever, and the net winds back over the bow, the pale green folds of mesh glistening like lacework. Then, almost magically, a salmon flops over the net roller and onto the deck. Blue-backed and silver-bellied, it thrashes and flashes in the light. There's another one, then another.

Covel, who's been working the delta for 12 years, has seen the commercial fishery's decline. While commercial fishermen netted nearly 1.8 million salmon from the Copper River in 2002, they're still hurting ― in large part because of consumers' attraction to cheaper farmed salmon, the world supply of which more than tripled between 1989 and 1998. While prices for the early-season run of the prized king (or chinook) salmon remain high, the farmed-salmon glut has depressed prices for the later runs of sockeye (or red) and silver (or coho) salmon. It is only people's willingness to pay more for quality wild salmon that keeps Covel's boat running.

And that's how the dominoes begin to fall: without a healthy fishing industry, there's less economic incentive to maintain a healthy watershed. Or to preserve wild salmon.

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