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Saturday, June 30, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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How Copper River's salmon became king

Seattle Times business reporter

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By now you know the story: Every May, thousands of shimmering Copper River salmon make an arduous trek from the icy ocean waters of Alaska.

It's a migration fraught with peril. As sockeye and giant kings teem beneath lilting waves preparing for their run, predators hover overhead, waiting to pounce.

As they have for years, flashing nets haul the fish aboard boats, then helicopters whisk the catch to waiting jets for the miraculous journey to fancy fish counters and restaurants in Seattle.

This timeless ritual resonates deeply within us. Warmed by the red heat lamps of media coverage, nurtured by our love of butter and barbecue, it raises profound questions. Which supermarket will land the first king? Who will savor the first succulent morsel?

Who will pay $27.99 a pound?

As this year's six-week-long season for Copper River king salmon ends this weekend, once again the answer is: plenty of people.

Thanks largely to spirited marketing campaigns devised by some daring Seattleites, Copper River salmon has climbed the fish ladder to our wallets. Over 20 years, it has risen from tin-can fodder to gourmet fare, doing for the humble fish what Starbucks did for coffee.

And while fishermen drive new trucks in the town of Cordova, Alaska, where the Copper River fleet harbors, most of the profit appears to have gone to the middlemen.

People at fish counters say they typically charge double their wholesale cost, in part because they must fillet the fish and discard the head and spine. Retailers also are sometimes a little slow to drop the price even when the wholesale cost falls.

"There's a lot of money being made," said Wayne Ludvigsen, former chef at Ray's Boathouse who now works at Charlie's Produce, a fruit and produce wholesaler. "You certainly haven't seen the price come down at the retail or restaurant level as much as the price at the boat. There's an opportunity seized."

No one disputes that Copper River fish tastes different. Migration up the steep, rugged river produces a high fat content and healthy omega 3 fatty acids in the deep-red fish. Although other varieties, including the less pricey Copper River sockeye, also have those qualities, Copper River kings, being the first fish of the season, capture the spotlight.

In marketing parlance, that cachet is a "value-add," says Jim Copacino, who heads Seattle ad agency Copacino, which gave us the Mariners' "You Gotta Love These Guys" campaign.

"When a product exceeds its functional purpose and starts to fulfill emotional needs, you can charge a premium for that."

While there's growing cynicism about such advertising messages, particularly among teenagers, "the greater number of people out there still want fervently to believe that a branded product is better," says Jerry Johnson, a consumer researcher at Cascade Strategies in Seattle. Even so, "there's a healthy component of snake oil there."

River to riches

It's 1982, and the Copper River salmon's trip from commodity to celebrity is about to begin. The setting is Ray's Boathouse on Shilshole Bay in Ballard. Jon Rowley, a former fisherman, is talking with a group of fishing friends at the bar. All of them know Copper River salmon are special, but most of the fish at the time is being packed with other salmon varieties into 15-ounce cans that sell for as little as $1.50.

Rowley, who has a knack for marketing, figures if he can persuade his friends to supply fresh fish to restaurants everyone will make more money. But fresh fish requires careful handling. The catch has to be gutted and iced as soon as it's caught, not left unrefrigerated. Gentle treatment - not throwing - is needed to avoid bruises that hurt the texture.

How much would that raise the price? the fishermen ask.

Rowley throws out a guess, arbitrarily doubling the price. "Would that make you happy?" he asks.

"Oh, yeah!"

But the fishermen are skeptical. If they slow down to handle the fish carefully, they'll catch less. Besides, they say, their small salmon boats don't have space for ice machines and cleaning equipment.

Rowley tells them to let him know in the spring if they want to try it.

"Long about the middle of March I got a call," Rowley remembered recently.

He arranged with four restaurants to take 100 pounds each - Ray's, McCormick's Fish House, Triples and Rosellini's Other Place. Soon other fishermen and establishments wanted in.

The fish's fame grew as restaurants along the West Coast and around the country heard about it. And prices more than doubled, as Rowley had promised. Some fishermen can get as much as $4.00 a pound at the boat today, if the fish is carefully handled. The town of Cordova prospered. Residents drove better trucks. They could afford to spend part of the year in the sun.

But during this period farmed salmon began to eat into the market. Fish grown in mesh cages, available year round and selling for as little as $3.99 a pound, undercut the price of wild salmon. Farmed fish overtook wild in the mid-1990s. Last year, the 2.2 million pounds of farmed salmon produced was nearly double the wild catch.

In need of star power

Small wonder, then, that by 1997 Copper River salmon needed some star power. Rowley and partner John Foss had just the ticket. They dreamed up the idea of using helicopters and a "race" to attract TV and radio stations, aiming to get the event on drive time and the evening news.

Never mind that the race was a little one-sided the first year.

"It was just a race ... to get the fish down here ... and to be first," Rowley smirks.

But no one else was racing?

"We don't know that," Rowley says. "But we were there first."

Even so, they barely pulled it off. A cable broke on a helicopter sling carrying the fish, dropping the first load onto a bog in the Copper River.

"We had to go get another load and then me and a buddy took off in a Cessna" flying under a full moon to Anchorage, Foss recalls. As they rushed to catch a 2 a.m. Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle, they woke up airline brass with cell-phone calls trying to get them to hold the plane.

"They wouldn't do it. But we knew the ramp agent guys, and they knew we were coming," Foss says. "They said, 'Hurry up. We have a cargo cart ready and we're going to try to stop the plane.'

"We threw the boxes of fish on the cargo cart and belly loaded it onto the plane on the runway," Foss says. "The next day, we were live on KIRO in the morning. The story played all day Friday and was top of the news Friday night."

TV stations have been staking out the airport ever since.

And the price has kept rising.

Records from Alaska's Department of Fish and Game show Copper River salmon selling at the boat has averaged about $2 a pound over the last 20 years, 50 cents more than it was bringing in the early 1980s, when all the hoopla started.

That doesn't track with what consumers are paying. Prices at the fish counter have tripled from what they were 10 years ago - to as much as $27.99 a pound for fillets - from about $8.99.

"It used to be very reasonable," Foss quipped last week from behind the fish counter at Madison Market on First Hill, where Copper River king salmon was selling for $16.99 a pound. "The fishermen in Cordova just love us."

"Designer" fish have become more prevalent in recent years. An Alaskan variety marketed by Bainbridge Island resident Bruce Gore's Triad Fisheries carries a designer label and a serial number that identifies the date, place and boat used for the catch. The fish is carefully handled and frozen aboard the boats, assuring high quality, fish handlers say.

Yet, there are plenty of nondesigner fish in the sea - some as good or better for the same price or less. Copper River sockeye, for example, is selling for $8.99 a pound, roughly half the price of king. It tastes much the same, at least to untrained tongues.

Yukon king salmon, just coming into season, has a 25 percent fat content compared with 18 percent for Copper River kings, a result of the fish making a longer migration, nearly 2,000 miles to the farthest spawning grounds.

Dan Albrecht, executive director of the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, a marketing group, denies he's in competition with the Copper River fish. He says Copper River prices soar the first of the season, when it commands all the hype that spurs demand. After the initial flurry, however, Copper River prices fall by as much as $10 a pound. In contrast, Yukon king and sockeye tends to rise in price through the season, as Japanese companies buy up to 90 percent of it.

"Copper River starts out high because retailers and restaurants know they can charge a premium and every TV, radio and paper is saying `Copper River's coming to town, Copper River's coming to town.' "

He pauses. "It is kind of frustrating," he allows. "There is excellent salmon from other areas of Alaska, or Washington, Oregon and California. But everyone's been doing the Copper River for so long, they don't want to hear anything else."

Alwyn Scott can be reached at 206-464-3329 or ascott@seattletimes.com.

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