It’s nothing short of miraculous when your plane dips down through light cloud cover and Alaska’s Prince William Sound reveals itself. The Copper River roars through the clefts in the U.S.’s highest coastal mountain range until it ends in a wide delta. Bands of sandbars thrown up by all that water attract seals and sea lions that sunbathe before slipping off into the chilly suds. A bit farther out, the white flukes of humpback whales cut the waves while osprey and bald eagles dive, talons blazing. All of these hunters, including many humans among them, are on the lookout for fish.
The five species of salmon that return to Alaska’s rivers every summer bring with them the energy and flavor of the open ocean. The sockeye salmon is particularly distinctive: Colored a deep ruby red from the krill they feast upon in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska, sockeye are lean and tangy with complex and layered flavors. It’s the sockeye’s specific, authentic taste and its connection to the wild ocean that has drawn fishermen to places like Prince William Sound. “I grew up in a small farming community in Minnesota,” longtime fisherman Mike Mahoney told me as he was gearing up for the beginning of salmon season in the tiny hamlet of Cordova. “I came to Alaska in 1996 because I wanted to see what the wilderness was like.
This family-run, coastal, small boat-style fishing life really appealed to me.” In high season Mahoney fishes the shallow bars of the delta single-handedly, dodging 15 foot breakers and skirting the shore with his zippy twin engine vessel the Dorothy G. Because this is such a valuable and productive fishery, five months of hard fishing is enough to see him through the year.
That Mahoney has been able to live this independent fisherman’s life for seventeen seasons is something of a miracle too. It reveals itself to be all the more miraculous when you consider that Alaska’s salmon fisheries were almost obliterated.
A hundred odd years ago, when Alaska was just a federal territory lacking any rights of statehood, fishing magnates from the continental U.S. established massive salmon-canning operations along Alaska’s bays and rivers. Very little thought was put into managing salmon for the long term: Nets a mile long and even permanent barricades stole away the majority of fish attempting to reach the shallow gravel beds upstream to spawn. With so few salmon able to reproduce, populations declined year after year until large portions of the fishery collapsed. In 1953 president Dwight D. Eisenhower declared Alaska’s salmon country a federal disaster.
But then something surprising happened. Alaskans wrested control of their fisheries from the corporations that were ruining them. They lobbied hard and achieved statehood. They banned large scale salmon traps and actually wrote into their new constitution an obligation to “manage, protect, maintain, improve, and extend the fish of the state.” Throughout the 1960s 70s and 80s teams of fishery biologists blanketed Alaska’s rivers and set up data collection points to determine how to keep populations stable over time. Today the state Fish and Game Department crunches the information acquired by all these observers and only allows fishing after the river in question has achieved “escapement goals”—when a necessary number of fish have made it upstream to reproduce. It is this intense, precise regulation that has kept salmon coming back year after year. Whole fleets of fishermen like Mike Mahoney can keep netting salmon every season in rivers all up and down Alaska’s coast, provided they clear out of the way during critical migration times and follow the rules set forth by the Fish and Game Department.
“There were a lot of forward thinking people who set up our constitution,” Mike Mahoney says. “They ensured that a small boat fishery like the one I fish in can exist.”
But for all that good management it’s taken a while for Alaskan salmon to catch on in the lower 48. That’s mostly because before the 1980s the main way wild salmon got to us southerners was in a can. Which in the end meant that fishermen didn’t waste much of their valuable time caring for their catch.
“There was a tradition of dry holds and plywood boxes,” retired Cordova fisherman R. J. Kopchak, says remembering the days when a salmon might sit in the hot sun at the bow of a boat for hours before it reached the cannery. But when buyers, first from Japan and later from Seattle, started asking for fillets instead of cans, the Copper River Fisherman’s Coop launched a quality control program that included bleeding out fish and immediately icing them. The Coop has since been replaced by other forward thinking entities like the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association that continues to improve practices. Today the flash frozen fillets that come out of Cordova when defrosted properly have a taste and texture that’s crazily close to the fresh.
The Copper River-inspired spirit of quality is gradually catching on in other parts of the state: down in Southeast in Sitka and Yakutat where trollers focus on giant king salmon for the Seattle fresh market; through the Kenai Peninsula that’s strong in silvery leaping cohos; in the massive sockeye dominated salmon heartland of Bristol Bay. In all these regions fishermen and processors are striving to make the frozen product as close as possible to the fresh, instituting a cool chain from net to processor and state-of-the-art flash freezing techniques that freeze fillets so quickly that ice crystals can’t form and ruin the salmon’s texture.
Meanwhile back in Cordova, The Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association along with the Cordova District Fishermen United organization have become not just models for how they protect the quality of the fish flesh they sell. They have also been leaders in safeguarding the environment that keeps all this salmon coming year after year. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground at Bligh Reef in 1989 and spilled ten million gallons of crude oil, Cordova fishermen banded together and agreed to use the billions of dollars in settlement funds to purchase thousands of acres of vital streamside spawning habitat and retire the logging rights on even more land. Today the fishermen fight on, against mining interests, against fracking that’s being considered on one of the Copper’s tributaries and even against designs to build a riverside road that would connect Cordova to the rest of the world. In the tiny two-street downtown of this village that is at once both rugged and crunchy if you see a bumper stick that says “No Road” you can bet that car is probably being driven by a salmon fisherman who certainly doesn’t want tourists or weekend warriors from Anchorage spoiling this special secret of a place.
“We make our living off catching fish,” Mike Mahoney says, “We still have this authentic commercial fishing economy here. A little bit of tourism is fine. But a road to me could bring in these unintended consequences that people just don’t see.”
At least for now Mike Mahoney’s salmon secret is safe. When a piece of his salmon ends up on your plate you get to be in on the secret too.