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Business/Economy

Alaska’s Copper River fishing season kicks off in a year like no other

Commercial fishing boats take up much of the Cordova boat harbor on September 17, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN archive)

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An Alaska commercial fishing season unlike any other kicked off in Cordova on Thursday.

Normally, the Copper River gillnet season, the first salmon fishery to open in the state, is known for high-priced fish and celebrity-level fanfare: One of the first fish to be caught is flown to Seattle via Alaska Airlines jet, and greeted with a red carpet photo opportunity.

From there, plump ruby fillets of Copper River salmon typically fetch astronomical prices at fine dining restaurants and markets. Last year, Copper River king salmon sold for $75 per pound, a record, at Seattle’s famed Pike Place Fish Market.

In this pandemic year, things are different all around: The Alaska Airlines first fish photo op will still happen, but the festivities have been tamped down and six-foot distancing and masks are now required. Instead of a cooking contest pitting Seattle chefs against each other, a salmon bake for workers at Swedish Hospital in Ballard is planned.

And this year, Cordova’s first-in-the-state salmon fishery will be a high stakes test of whether health mandates, corporate protocols and government planning can prevent a coronavirus outbreak in the isolated Prince William Sound town.

“It’s always electric, that first day (of the salmon fishing season),” said Clay Koplin, Cordova’s mayor. “It’s a different kind of electric this year — leans a little more toward anxiety.”

The community of Cordova has been at the center of a divisive debate over whether commercial fishing can safely happen at all in the remote Prince William Sound region.

Cordova knows the rest of Alaska is watching the next few weeks to see whether the community experiences a surge in coronavirus cases brought by the fishing fleet or processing workers, said Koplin.

Koplin insists the city is as prepared as possible. On Wednesday, officials — including Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink — toured the town, stopping as the health clinic, harbor and other places meant to demonstrate the town’s readiness, he said.

“There’s a lot of eyes on this fishery,” said Koplin.

In Cordova, many aspects of how fish are caught and brought to market have changed.

“Very little is the same as any other year,” said Shannon Carroll of Trident Seafoods, which has a corporate headquarters in Seattle but operated 10 processing facilities in Alaska each summer, including one in Cordova.

Processing companies and city officials have been meeting for months to come up with a plan for the fishing season.

In Cordova, processors are quarantined in bunkhouses or restricted to facility campuses.

Ocean Beauty Seafoods has tested workers in Seattle during a hotel quarantine before flying them to Alaska. One worker tested positive last week, but the case appears to be isolated, according to Koplin.

Trident says it rented most of an Anchorage hotel, where arriving workers are put on a strict quarantine for 14 days before flying private charters to job sites, including Cordova. Processors are closing their campuses to outsiders, and some like Trident have brought their own medical and security staff to enforce the rules.

The fishing fleet itself is governed by Alaska’s Health Mandate 17, which involves some “pretty rigid restrictions” that independent harvesting vessels and tenders need to follow, said Carroll.

“I think it’s much more strict than the direction the rest of the state is going, as the state is moving towards opening things up,” he said.

Rachel Hoover owner of Darling's Ferments and local artist photographed with her children Una Darling and Sulho Reed at the Cordova Harbor May 6, 2020. (Photo by Brandyn Ashley (@brandynashley)

But some locals privately say they doubt the fishing fleet will follow social distancing protocols, pointing at “raft-ups” during closures where boats congregate and crews mingle.

Some wonder why the city has declared success before the fishing starts in earnest.

“While we’re kind of excited and feel good about where we are right now, we’re also apprehensive,” Koplin said. “We don’t want to be dropping vigilance and the pieces in place.”

The Copper River fishery is much smaller, by pound, than the Prince William Sound salmon fishery that starts around mid-June. Another wave of workers and fishermen who run seining boats will arrive then, said Koplin. And that’s before, in theory, the sport fishermen show up from August to October, booking “every available room in town.”

Nobody quite knows, and economists are loath to speculate, what the market demand for fish will be this year with many restaurants closed or under limited operations. More fish may be frozen than in years past.

Many of the fine-dining restaurants that buy Copper River kings, and drive premium prices, are shuttered or operating on a limited basis due to the coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

People still want Copper River salmon, said Pike Place Fish Market owner Jason Scott, as his phone beeped with a text message from a Cordova fisherman showing his catch during the day’s fishing opener. He hoped he’d get some in the store by Friday. People have been calling to ask for it, he said.

“Our phone has been ringing off the hook for Copper River salmon,” Scott said. “The buzz is there. We have to have it.”

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