On the eve of the May 16 opener of the famed Copper River wild salmon run, upscale seafood suppliers are fielding calls from customers awaiting the first fish, and many restaurants are planning to celebrate the event with entrée specials.
At the famed Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, the company’s website is urging customers to sign up on its preorder sheet. In Anchorage, Tenth and M Seafoods is getting a barrage of inquiries, and Copper River Seafoods is planning a promotional first fish event at the Bridge Seafood Restaurant.
The annual fanfare over the succulent sockeye and Chinook salmon from Alaska’s Copper River also includes the transport of a large king salmon, supplied by Ocean Beauty Seafoods, on an Alaska Airlines jet to Seattle. There the fish is carried off the jet and down the red carpet by the pilot, for an on-the-spot chef competition that attracts broadcast and print media.
Yet the hullabaloo over the Copper River wild salmon may never have happened, but for Jon Rowley, a former Southeast Alaska fisherman working as a Seattle restaurant consultant back in the early 1980s.
A veteran salmon fisherman, Rowley had relatives in Cordova, where wild salmon were routinely frozen or canned for shipment from a fishery where the harvest was hauled into boats with no refrigeration and then to tenders with no refrigeration.
He knew that properly handled the succulent Copper River reds and kings had great potential, but convincing the fish harvesters took some work, even after he told them that effort could result in a better price for their fish.
“I said if I was going to be involved handling their fish (for delivery to some of Seattle’s best seafood restaurants) that they would need to have troll quality,” with each fish bled, dressed and iced as it came on board, Rowley said.
The handful of harvesters he spoke with, including the late Tommy Johnson, didn’t think this was possible because the infrastructure wasn’t there, but Rowley told them to think about it.
It was October 1982.
In March Rowley got a call from Johnson, he said he wanted to do it, but how?
“I forgot how he managed to get ice, but he figured out how to get it, and I showed him how to bleed the fish, and I had the customers all ready here, so my work with the restaurants was to give them the advantage of the best fish,” Rowley said.
When the Copper River fishery opened, they put the plan into action.
The first delivery of 400 pounds of king salmon went to four restaurants, which got rave reviews from their customers. From those humble beginning, the Copper River fishery grown to become somewhat of a cultural ritual in Seattle and elsewhere, and today is one of the state’s best-known salmon fisheries.