Copper River salmon are a vital resource

As cooler weather and shorter days come to Alaska, a beautiful harbinger of fall is making its annual migration back to Cordova streams -- Copper River coho salmon. Together with its king and sockeye cousins, the Copper River run lasts five months, from mid-May through the end of September. I've been fishing the Copper River for 20 years, and, as any fisherman here will tell you, coho season is a wild ride -- unpredictable returns and the potential for big storms can either bring a sweet ending to the season or a chance to pack the net up early. However fishing wraps up this fall, this seasonal economy supports and feeds the hundreds of fishermen, businesses and families in Cordova, throughout Alaska and beyond.

Locally, as in many coastal Alaska communities, Cordovans live and breathe salmon whether it's coming up over our bow roller, being celebrated at summer festivals or being pulled from our freezers to sustain us during the off season. It's a resource that spans generations and cultures, something that we recognize the importance of sustaining for all users. Whether harvested commercially, for subsistence, sport or personal use, Copper River and all wild Alaska salmon feeds our families, communities and economies. We all benefit from this shared resource, and it's important that we protect it for our collective future.

Many people don't realize all the ways that Copper River salmon and Alaska's commercial seafood industry benefit the state and its residents. Revenues from commercial fishing not only support individual jobs, but seafood taxes also boost the state's general fund and help support schools, hospitals and infrastructure in communities throughout Alaska. Exports of seafood help offset inbound freight costs by as much as 10 cents a pound.

People often ask what makes Copper River salmon so special. Intrinsic attributes like high oil content, firm flesh texture and deep red color come from the 300-mile, glacial-fed, fast-moving river system, and they account for a lot. Equally if not more important is what happens once each salmon is harvested. Twenty-five years ago, Copper River salmon were hauled aboard and left in dry holds, and quality was not on most fishermen's minds. Those days ended when fishermen realized that if they took better care of their catch, they could deliver a higher quality product to markets and, ultimately, consumers. Quality handling practices like icing, bleeding, short set times and frequent deliveries started to become the norm. As more fishermen adopted these practices, the quality of the pack improved, as did the value.

Today, this culture of quality is standard. Nobody thinks about delivering un-iced fish -- we take pride in our catch and know that each salmon we hand pick out of our nets will ultimately end up on someone's dinner plate. When I head out for a fishing opener, I know that while it's just me onboard my boat, tending my net and taking care of my catch, I'm also part of the larger community of quality-minded Copper River fishermen.

That sense of community translates onto land with our processing plants, local businesses and organizations as well as city, state and federal agencies. We all share a common goal of ensuring that the Copper River will support healthy runs for generations to come. As a fisherman, businessman and father, I know it's important that the salmon I bring home to sell to markets and feed my family is not only some of the finest wild protein in the world, it's also the highest quality and harvested from a fishery that is sustainably managed for all user groups.

Brian Rutzer of Cordova is president of the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association.