Every spring, seafood lovers in the northwestern United States get excited, if not giddy, about the arrival of something seemingly mundane: a fish. Signage outside restaurants and seafood markets proclaim, “It’s here!” Chefs and home cooks plan their menus and wine pairings around it. When Copper River King salmon season begins in mid-May, there’s a collective sense of joy.

Rightfully so, for this is the most delicious, simple-to-cook protein, and yet it’s ephemeral, with the season lasting a short month. 

Thanks to Copper River Seafoods and Vital Choice, it’s not just northwestern seafood lovers who can take advantage of the brief, shining moment when wild Alaskan King salmon from the Copper River is available. For those who have never sunk a fork into the rich, oily, anadromous fish, now’s the time to get to know one of the food world’s hottest cult seafoods.

The king of all salmon 

Copper River King salmon get their flavor and high oil content, the sought-after omega-3 fatty acids, from their annual journey to spawn. The Copper River is the eighth largest river in the United States, but its legendary status comes not just from its length; it’s glacier-fed, fast-moving, and “ferocious,” according to Scott Blake, the CEO and co-founder of Copper River Seafoods. 

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Kara Nicolet, a Copper River Seafoods harvester, holding a large Copper River King Salmon. Courtesy Copper River Seafoods

To make the treacherous trip from the Gulf of Alaska into the Copper River, the fish, also known as Chinook salmon, have to store up “a tremendous amount of oil,” Blake says, comparing the journey to the trek of salmon on the longer Yukon River, which is 2,000 miles long but moves at a slower pace than the Copper River. When Copper River salmon come back to the mouth of the river for their return trip, the fish are harvested at the peak of their oil content, which gives the salmon not only its health benefits — omega-3s are prized for lowering cholesterol and improving our cardiovascular system — but a buttery texture and intense marbling that has earned the Copper River Kings comparisons to Wagyu beef.

It’s important to note, however, that Copper River King salmon is a wild fish, and since its richness comes naturally, thanks to its nutrient-rich diet, there’s an artisanal approach to Copper River Seafoods’ commercial harvesting of this fish. The company works with small vessels that are approximately 32 feet long, with crews of only one or two. The King salmon are harvested by gillnet, a wall or curtain of netting that hangs in the water, during extremely short season openers of 12 to 24 hours in mid- to late-May to June. Once caught, they are then individually removed, bled, and gently submerged in a mixture of flaked ice and seawater, a technique used to approximate the ocean water’s glacial-fed temperatures. The day’s catch is then brought to the Copper River Seafoods facility for processing and is frozen at peak freshness for Vital Choice to then ship to you.

Plating perfection

Growing up in a fishing family amid a community that prizes its Copper River salmon and other wild Alaskan seafood, Blake’s family meals consisted mostly of wild Alaska seafood and other locally harvested foods. Why bother when you have access to amazing fish such as Copper River King salmon, which requires little effort to turn out a delicious dish?

“Cooking Copper River salmon is very simple for me,” he says. “I put a piece of fish on the grill, add a little butter, garlic, salt, and lemon pepper, and the rest takes care of itself.”

In winter, when he has frozen salmon and it’s too cold to grill outside, Blake cooks the fish skin-side down in a pan, using the same mixture of butter, herbs, and spices, then flips it to finish the dish. He says he recently did this for friends who took one bite and were left awestruck. “They didn’t know what to say,” he laughs.

Of course, you can get more creative with King salmon preparations, adding different spice mixtures, or even a honey brown sugar glaze. But after taking a bite of a simply prepared Copper River King salmon fillet or steak, you may be inclined to follow Blake’s lead and opt for a minimalist approach.

copper river king salmon recipe
Seared King Salmon with Capers and Dill

A commitment to sustainability

Blake co-founded Copper River Seafoods in 1996 with three fellow multi-generational fishermen who wanted to ensure the survival of the fishing practices that have long sustained their Alaskan communities. As he discussed with us recently while showcasing Copper River Seafood’s Alaskan halibut, farmed salmon fisheries were threatening to topple the wild fishing industry through innovation and, in part, marketing.

The overfishing of wild species outside of Alaska led many consumers to believe that eating farmed fish was better for the environment, but in Alaska, sustainable fishing has been the law since 1959 when Alaska became the only state with sustainability written into its constitution. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) manages the salmon fishery by setting “escapement goals” that provide sufficient numbers of adult spawning salmon to escape capture in the fishery and reach the spawning grounds in the freshwater environment, thus maintaining the long-term health of salmon populations. 

In order to maintain escapement, the commercial harvest fluctuates from year-to-year. In Alaska, the salmon fisheries are tactically managed while they are actually taking place, known as “in- season management” through counting fish as they swim up to their spawning grounds. Local ADFG offices make in-season management decisions for the 15,000-plus salmon spawning streams that the state manages. Alaska has led the way with its in-season salmon management approach, which has become a model for fisheries management agencies around the world. 

This year’s forecast for King salmon returning to the Copper River is 47,000, just 2% below the 10-year average, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecast. But as Blake notes, the wild salmon is now protected against overfishing. “We manage for sustainability first,” he says.

Copper river king salmon season with a filet of salmon on a wooden block surrounded by herb garnishes.
Copper River salmon — the gold standard of all salmon! Courtesy Copper River Prince William Sound Marketing Association

The commitment to sustainability helps not only the fish stocks but also the Alaskan communities that rely on commercial fishing. Blake says that there are more than 150 families involved in fishing for Copper River Seafoods salmon alone. “Those families depend on us to make their house payments and put food on their table for their kids, and to make sure that they have a sustainable livelihood. That’s extremely important to us.”

The “amazing product,” as Blake calls the salmon, is also important, not only to him and the Copper River Seafoods families, but to the consumers who get the opportunity to experience it.

“Wild Alaska seafood is the largest, naturally sustainable seafood in the world,” he says. “Our waters and air are pristine and clear.” Blake goes on to say that the fish therefore can thrive, never having to leave their natural environment and giving them genetic advantages that farmed seafood can’t attain.

Or to put it simply, if you care about the environment as well as the quality of your seafood, you can have your King salmon and eat it too.

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Richard Martin is a writer, editor, and strategist who specializes in food, drink, and travel. He is the co-founder and editor of Appetito, the new online publication about Italian food and drink, and the co-author of the cookbook series Preserved, from publisher Hardie Grant NA.

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