SPONSORED: On a cool Friday morning in May, an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-400 Combi slowly taxied to a stop on the tarmac at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. As ground crews rolled out a red carpet to meet the Cordova flight, First Officer Melissa VanDyke emerged from the jet weighed down by a 45-pound salmon — the first Copper River king of the season.
For the past eight years, the arrival of the first Copper River salmon of the year has been celebrated with pomp and circumstance at Sea-Tac in an event anchored by the annual Copper Chef Cook-Off, a culinary competition featuring top area chefs. (Chef John Sundstrom of Seattle restaurant Lark took top honors this year with a dish that paired fillets with risotto and morels.) It's covered by a throng of local and national media and mimicked in a similar companion event each year in Anchorage.
Is it theater? Of course. It's also a symbol of the reinvention of Alaska salmon as a global brand — a prestige product with a loyal following and an economic footprint in the Last Frontier that's right in line with the top-tier prices those first-run kings command at fish counters across the nation.
Marketing a 'premium product'
It wasn't that long ago that a red-carpet event honoring Alaska salmon in the Lower 48 wouldn't have occurred to — well, anyone.
"It's interesting … 20, 25 years ago, pretty much all the sockeye that was caught in Alaska was put in a can or it was sent frozen to Japan," said Andy Wink, a seafood economist with the McDowell Group. Prices were low, and the return on investment for a fishing family was getting questionable despite the quality of fish in the area. Salmon returning to the Copper River to spawn are known for having exceptional meat due to the fat stores they build up for the journey up the river.
With the help of a Seattle seafood business consultant, Copper River fishermen set about changing the way they handled fish so salmon could be delivered fresh at top quality. At the same time, they worked directly with chefs and restaurants to show off their catch.
The efforts paid off. Today wholefish and fillets comprise 60 percent of the state's wholesale salmon market, according to a September 2017 McDowell Group report on the economic impact of Alaska seafood. While salmon were 14 percent of the volume of Alaska seafood harvested in 2015 and 2016, they were 25 percent of the total value. Outside Alaska, you'll find early-season Copper River salmon going for $60 per pound — or more.
"It is a premium product," said Scott Kelly, director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Division of Commercial Fisheries.
Wild and free
In recent years, "sustainable" has become a key marketing word for Alaska seafood. Because operating in Alaska is expensive, it's tough for Alaska to compete on price alone. So the cachet of sustainable wild salmon from pristine waters is important not just because it characterizes Alaska's seafood but because it sets it apart from competitors both in the U.S. and abroad. Conscientious Lower 48 consumers may be moved to seek out wild salmon thanks to media coverage of declining salmon runs in other states, Kelly said.
"The average consumer sees that and they can see that our options, our offerings from the state are sustainable," Kelly said. "I think the public is getting pretty well informed on these things and they look for things like that — and are willing to pay for things like that."
The proliferation of farmed salmon, which started taking a bite out of the U.S. market in the early 2000s, may have increased competition, but it has also given wild salmon a cachet it didn't always have, economist Wink said.
"Over time, as more and more people were eating more farmed salmon, I think it increases the value of wild salmon," he said. "Wild salmon is becoming more of a niche product."
A harvest built for fresh delivery
A significant part of the marketing of Alaska salmon is an emphasis on freshness. The handling techniques used among Copper River fishermen were developed with an eye toward delivering fresh salmon at peak quality.
"They were one of the first fleets to realize that if you chill your fish, get it to market quick, it's going to be a better product and you're going to get a better price for it," Wink said, adding that other fisheries in the state have since adopted similar practices.
Unlike other fleets that set their nets from the stern, the "bowpickers" that fish the Copper River flats, designed for shallow water fishing, are configured with the cabin astern and the reel holding the gillnet situated in the bow of the boat. As nets are reeled in, each fish is hand-picked from the net, bled on the spot, and immediately put on ice or refrigerated. Tender boats buy fish on the water, or skippers can make the 35- to 50-mile trip back to town to sell to any of a number of Cordova processors who then air-ship salmon by the ton to Seattle and points beyond.
Where and when to sell is a matter of personal preference and logistical need, said Cordova fisherman Bill Lindow.
"There's a lot of people who have loyalty to one processor for whatever reason. Maybe it just becomes comfortable and you just get to know the people," Lindow said. "But I bounce around and try to support processors that are really pushing the price and competing."
The picking and storing process is the same whether salmon are destined for fresh delivery or the freezer. Handling of frozen fish can be just as important as the fresh salmon, Wink said, since much of Alaska's statewide harvest is later thawed, filleted and sold as a "refresh product."
"Freezing it allows us to take this huge volume of salmon and sell it out over a longer period of time," Wink said.
Sharing the wealth
Sixty-dollar-a-pound salmon fillets are good for the fishing fleet, of course, but the ripple effect of success for the seafood industry has benefits for other businesses as well.
The McDowell Group estimates that business and household spending by the fishing industry and its employees in 2015 and 2016 created an annual average of 8,800 jobs and $385 million in secondary labor income.
In one way or another, fishing dollars reach businesses ranging from the obvious — marine and fuel suppliers in fishing communities, equipment outfitters in Anchorage, the flourishing boatbuilding industry in Homer started by Old Believers — to restaurants, transportation companies, retailers, and firms providing professional services like accounting and marketing. A good year for Alaska fishermen means more spending on new homes, new cars, and other consumer goods.
As Alaska seafood's star has risen nationally, it's also gained new cachet among Alaskans. Although it's been a symbol of Alaska life since long before statehood, today salmon enjoys a status of which not every resource can boast: It's cool.
Whether it's because duct tape and Xtratufs finally caught on as fashion accessories or a residual effect from wild Alaska seafood's position in the constellation of culinary all-stars, Alaskans have embraced stylish options for expressing their love for salmon — and that has provided new business opportunities in a surprising sector.
In recent years, Alaska-designed fashion brands have popped up around the state and gained loyal followings in state and Outside. Along with others, there's AK Starfish Co., which features sea creatures in a variety of graphic prints; FisheWear, a line of clothing and outdoor gear designed for women who love to fish; Tidal Vision, which crafts wallets from salmon leather; and Salmon Sisters, a lifestyle brand that sells stylish apparel, accessories and housewares.
"Salmon is tradition, sustainability, identity, livelihood, food, and place all bound up together," Salmon Sisters founders Emma Laukitis and Claire Neaton, themselves commercial fishermen, wrote in a joint email. "It's beautiful to see how our designs speak to so many, when 'fish' and 'fashion' seemed like a real niche when we started our company."
Rich with opportunity
As sustainability and "foodie" culture continue to grow in popularity, Alaska salmon's time in the national spotlight seems likely to continue, particularly as more areas of the state have begun their own regional seafood marketing. Wink said when he looks at the future of the industry, he sees a world of opportunity for Alaskans.
"It's kind of exciting that there's this huge sustainable industry," Wink said. "There's a lot of potential for growing the amount of income that goes to residents from the seafood industry."
Alaskans have a special connection to salmon, he said — and proximity to opportunities to invest in commercial fishing as a career.
"It's hundreds of millions of dollars of income that is potentially there for Alaska residents," Wink said. "I don't know how many other industries you could say that for."
This article was produced by the creative services department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.