Wild Copper RIver Salmon Season begins May 16
If you’re a wild salmon fan–especially the first-of-the-season Copper River Kings–circle May 16 on your calendar.
Officials at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have set the opening day of salmon fishing season on Alaska’s famed Copper River for May 16, three days later than last year.
“There’s still a lot of ice on the river, but we’re expecting a good year for Copper River salmon,” said Jeremy Botz, a lead biologist for the Alaska Department of Game and Fish, which regulates commercial fishing on the river.
Copper River salmon are prized for their deep red (King and sockeye) or orange (Coho) color, heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acid content and incomparable flavor. The wild salmon are caught from mid-May until early September during their trek up the Copper River from the Gulf of Alaska. After living in the gulf most of the year, the salmon are genetically programmed to return to their birthplace up the Copper River each year to spawn.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced that the 2011 season will begin at 7 a.m. on May 16 and run for a twelve-hour period then likely resume for another 12 hour period the following Thursday.
Alaska officials only permit commercial salmon fishing on the Copper River twice a week –typically Mondays and Thursdays–and then only during tightly restricted hours. Botz and his staff closely monitor a number of factors each season to determine those hours, including a sonar count of upriver salmon and reports from commercial fisherman about their catch the previous Monday or Thursday.
Right now, only a few hundred salmon a day are swimming up the Copper River. But the Department of Fish and Game predicts that number will jump to several thousand on May 16, which is why they chose that day to open the season.
This year, forecasters expect commercial fisherman to pull in 1.2 million Sockeye salmon, 9,000 Kings and 293,000 Cohos this season, which would make 2011′s catch one of the biggest hauls in years.
To legally catch the salmon, Botz says, commercial fishermen must possess one of the 435 commercial permits issued this year. Botz expects about 450 boats–each possessing one of those permits–to fish for salmon on the Copper River on opening day. More than 90 percent of the salmon caught early in the season are Sockeyes.
Most of the Kings will be caught from May 16 until mid-June. The sockeyes will run from now until mid-July, while the Cohos will continue to run until September.
“We won’t know much about pricing until the fisherman see how much they actually catch on the first day,” says Lyle French, the fresh seafood buyer for Costco Wholesale, the giant Kirkland, Washington, retailer. French expects wholesale prices for Copper River wild salmon to remain in line with last year’s, which means many Dallas area fishmongers will probably sell CR salmon for $25-30 per pound during the first couple of weeks of the catch. The price usually declines after that.
Costco’s buying power and low margins allow them to sell fresh Copper River salmon for much less. How much less?
“It’s our goal to always be as competitive as possible,” French told me by telephone. “At least as good as last year,” when Costco sold Copper River salmon for $12.99 a pound. As the season progressed, prices for wild salmon dropped to $8.99 a pound. As the Copper River run slows, Costco shifts to other Alaskan rivers and inlets, offering wild salmon from those regions at a similarly low price.
French says Dallas area stores should begin seeing Copper River Sockeyes — and maybe a few big Kings — “by May 25 or 26, but certainly by Memorial Day weekend.”
Jon Alexis of TJ’s Seafood Market says he expects his first shipment to arrive for sale Friday, May 17. Other fishmongers, including Central Market and Whole Foods, usually sell Copper River salmon, as well.
How does Costco’s French like to cook his salmon?
“I grill it on a cedar plank with salt and pepper and maybe a little pat of butter.”
Botz, the fish and game biologist, also likes to grill his simply: “I like a hot fire and just a sprinkling of salt and pepper.”
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