Aug 31, 2021

Cordova, Alaska with Copper River Salmon

I spent a little under a week in Cordova, Alaska learning about salmon fishing on the Copper River.

August 21, 2021 to August 26, 2021

I’m so honored to have been invited to Cordova, Alaska by Copper River Salmon for salmon camp! I was included in a group of four food content creators who made the trip for the camp. Cordova, Alaska is located 147 miles East of Anchorage, about a 45-minute flight. It’s a town dominated by the fishing industry (specifically salmon), and it’s been incredible to learn about the various groups that work together to both create it and keep it sustainable. Every person is so passionate about salmon and their home.

Cordova, Alaska with Copper River Salmon

Cordova Alaska

It’s not just the fishermen who deal with the salmon but the biologists and the Department of Fish and Game who estimate their numbers and study them, and the non-profit organizations that work to protect the lands. There are also the commercial fishermen, the tourist fishing industry, the workers at the processing and canning facilities, the net menders working to fix nets and so many more. In an area with fewer resources than much of the “lower 48”, many people must work in harmony to keep the industry sustainable. 

We learned about the fishing industry and ate our weight in salmon (still not sick of it!). We also had the opportunity to fly over the fishing grounds and see the Copper River from above, hiked up the side of a ski hill and rode around the harbor on a boat. The natural landscape of Alaska is stunning, and photos truly don’t do it justice! 

About Cordova

2,200 people live in Cordova year-round, with more coming to work for the summer fishing season. We’ve heard countless stories beginning with “I came here for three weeks and now I’ve lived here for 20 years…”. Prior to its time as one of the prime fishing areas of the country, Cordova was the ocean shipping port of a railway to transport copper ore from mines up the Copper River. 

Cordova Alaska with Copper River Salmon
What are the Five Types of Alaskan Salmon? 

What are the Five Types of Alaskan Salmon? 

The three popular types of salmon for consumption are coho, sockeye, and king. These are the varieties most people think of when they think of Copper River Salmon. They are the most sought after by home cooks and chefs alike. Other varieties like chum and pinks are not as sought after. Though they have other uses and are often sold canned or ground up in other products.  

King salmon

King salmon, also known as Chinook, is the largest salmon and is prized for its rich, oily meat. This type of salmon has the most omega-3’s in comparison to other varieties. They store extra fat from nutrient-rich waters before returning to fresh waters. I’ve heard it called “the wagyu of seafoods” and “the connoisseur’s salmon” for its incredible flavor and buttery texture. It’s also prized due to its short season – king salmon is available May through June. Because of its high quality, I recommend cooking it simply to let its exceptional flavor steal the show. 

Sockeye

Sockeye, also known as red salmon, is an extremely lean fish. It has a bright red color, firm texture, and rich salmon flavor. When cooked it retains its bright color (due to the fish’s diet of plankton and krill). This makes it a favorite among chefs. Sockeye is the most abundant of the Copper River salmon, and the season runs from late May to the end of June. Because it’s a thin fish, it can be easily overcooked, so I recommend  shortening the cooking time if using sockeye in place of other varieties in a recipe. 

Coho

Coho salmon, also known as silver salmon, is named for their blue backs and silver sides. This variety has a light flavor and has a paler more orange color in comparison to the deep red color of sockeye. It’s cheaper than sockeye or king though still high-quality. It’s available fresh from July through September, the latest of the season. During our trip this is the type of salmon we learned to fillet.

Chum

Chum or Keta has a lower fat content than king, sockeye and coho and is commonly used in burgers, or canned products. 

Pinks

Pinks or humpback salmon are the smallest of the salmon varieties with a mild flavor. Like chum they are frequently used ground in other recipes or canned. 

What Makes Copper River Salmon Different? 

What Makes Copper River Salmon Different? 

“It’s beautiful here because of the salmon and the salmon make it beautiful”

Kate, the Copper River Watershed Project

Copper River Salmon is famous for its superior taste and quality. This occurs because Copper River Salmon have one of the longest trips back to their spawning grounds. It’s over 300 miles upstream from ocean to river. Salmon have an incredible sense of when and how to return home to spawn – using a mix of olfactory senses and taste to navigate.  

All Alaskan salmon is always wild caught!! If it’s Alaskan salmon then it’s always wild, it’s never farmed. Some fish are raised in hatcheries and then released – though all Copper River salmon are ocean raised and wild caught when they return to spawn. 

There is no industry in Cordova, Alaska without the salmon. Working to protect the fish also works to protect the natural resources. The salmon act as a link between nutrient-rich ocean waters and freshwater areas. After they travel and spawn or become food for other animals in the area (like bears and eagles), the fish die off, becoming nutrients to the ecosystems in the area including trees.

Cordova Alaska Trip

What are the types of fishing in the Copper River? 

  • Commercial – While the term commercial fishing may evoke ideas of large fishing operations, the fishing operations that run on the Copper River are small-businesses and one-person operations. There are just over 500 fishing permits issued to boats in Cordova, 14 of them held by women, including the daughter of one of our hosts.
  • Subsistence – This is fishing done on a small scale to meet family needs and for personal consumption. Each household can harvest 30 salmon a season plus 10 for each dependent. Most residents of Cordova have never had to buy salmon from the grocery store – everyone is lucky enough to either fish or know someone who will share their fish!
  • Sport – Much of the summer tourism in Cordova, Alaska is dominated by sport fishing. People come from all over to spend time fishing on the famed Copper River. There are plenty of seasonal workers who work for the summer months, then spend the winter traveling or working in other outdoor-focused industries in other areas (such as skiing). 
Cordova Alaska with Copper River Salmon Experience

How is Alaskan Salmon a Sustainable Option? 

“Every fish is a gift and we treat it that way”

David Saiget, direct to consumer fisherman

Salmon escapement is the number of salmon that are not caught by fishing methods and make it back to their freshwater spawning grounds. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game work to ensure the appropriate numbers spawn to ensure more Copper River salmon for years to come. Other organizations like the Copper River Watershed Project work to protect the spawning habitat and ecosystem. 

Fish are counted using different methods including sonar to create limitations on fishing for the season. To avoid overfishing there are only certain days and times during the season that salmon can be fished, in addition to regulations on net length and size and strict permitting. 

Some of My Favorite Salmon Recipes 

Anyone who knows me knows that salmon is one of my favorite proteins! We ate salmon for most meals for the week in Cordova, Alaska and I still haven’t had enough Alaskan salmon. It’s a versatile fish which lends itself well to many different cooking methods. While I love baking, grilling or slow roasting it, the salmon can also be cold or hot smoked, poached or even frozen and served raw. 

Because Copper River salmon is incredible, I mostly like to serve it simply. 

Give these copper river salmon recipes a try:

Where can I buy Copper River Salmon?

FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions

Where can I buy Copper River Salmon?

Look for the words Copper River Salmon at your local grocery stores! You can search based on location using the fish finder tool here. I know it’s available in LA in Bristol Farms and Santa Monica Seafood. Pike Place Market in Seattle also carries the famed salmon. Buy from direct-to-consumer fisherman business Copper River Salmon Direct here

How are Copper River Salmon caught? 

King, sockeye, and coho salmon which are then sold to the public are wild caught by commercial fishermen in Prince William Sound on their way up the Copper River. Some work on tender boats and sell their fish to companies for processing and shipping to grocery stores, fish markets, individuals, or restaurants. Other fishermen skip the middleman and sell the salmon directly themselves, spending a fair amount of time marketing (a process made easier thanks to the internet and social media). 

When is the salmon season? 

Many people ask when Copper River season is available and the truth is, while it varies year to year, the season generally begins mid to late May and runs through September. 

How to cook Copper River salmon

Bake, grill, slow roast, smoke, poach or eat it raw. Salmon is a versatile fish. 

How much does Copper River salmon cost? 

The price is typically set at the beginning of the season based on availability. Because of the superior quality, short season and methods used to catch the wild fish, the price is higher than farmed salmon, but well worth it!

All about Copper River Salmon

Both wild salmon and farmed salmon have a place in this world. Though when you can afford it I highly recommend Copper River salmon!

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