Although Alaska can claim one of the world’s largest remaining wild salmon runs, the state’s harvest now represents only 3.5 percent of the world supply since farmed Atlantic salmon began flooding world markets in the late 1980s. The ensuing glut of farmed salmon caused a crisis in the wild salmon fishery – not a resource crisis, but an economic crisis – as the oversupply caused prices to plummet.

In 1988, wild Alaskan salmon generated three-quarters of a billion U.S. dollars. By 2002, its value had plummeted to $150 million. Marketing efforts to promote wild salmon and recent reports that raised public fears about contaminants in farmed salmon have helped boost sales and prices, but wild salmon is now and probably will remain a niche item in world markets.

Alaskan wild salmon represents 95 percent of the U.S. wild salmon harvest. The long, broad, shallow Copper River in Southeast-Central Alaska has the first and most celebrated King salmon run of the season. Biologists explain that the longer the river salmon must travel to spawn, the more fat they pack on for the trip, making fish from long rivers especially fatty and delicious. Most Alaska salmon is caught by small gillnet boats – between 32 feet and 42 feet long – setting driftnets from 90 feet to 1,800 feet long. Purse seines and trollers (longliners) catch the rest of the commercial harvest. Alaska also allows a recreational fishery.

Jim Kallander operates a small driftnet vessel in the Copper River and owns a salmon tender that delivers fish to plants in Cordova as well. Kallander also participates in the purse seine fishery. An active participant in the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) and a former board member who believes the organization’s marketing efforts have helped the fishery survive the worldwide glut, he worries that a newly launched state marketing campaign will duplicate efforts and undermine ASMI’s efforts.

Since salmon prices dropped, some Alaskans are unhappy with the fact that 40 percent of the commercial licenses to fish Alaska’s salmon are owned by out-of-state residents. Many fishermen who live and primarily fish in other states, such as Maine, hold licenses in some Alaskan fisheries.

Cordova, Alaska, is a town of 2,000 inhabitants on the Orca Inlet – the easternmost part of Prince WIlliam Sound. The tiny town has only 45 miles of road and the next town is 150 miles away. Small fixed-wing aircraft, many of them seaplanes, are as plentiful as cars in towns connected by highways. The road allows drivers access to the five glaciers that surround the town, a dock where fish is barged to Seattle or Anchorage, and the small airport.

Four fish plants underpin the town’s economy. Operating for seven months of the year, one Cordova plant, Silver Lining, will process between 40,000 and 50,000 salmon a day during the height of the Copper River salmon run. Copper River Kings have enjoyed a reputation over the past many years as Alaska’s most desirable and delicious wild salmon.

The Copper River delta starts 10 miles south of Cordova, so when the season begins in mid-May, the little town’s frenzy starts. Seattle brokers and food purveyors hire seaplanes and helicopters, make deals with fishing vessel owners, all in an attempt to return to Seattle with the first Copper River King of the year. Prices for Kings started this year at $6.50 per pound ex-vessel and dropped to $3.50 as the excitement wore off. Even after the first King contest ends, processors engage in a continuous mad scramble during the salmon season to transport millions of fish, by air, over the mountains and down the coast.

“It’s quite an airline issue from mid-May to mid-June,” said Bill Gilbert, who runs the Silver Lining seafood plant. “It’s a huge logistics nightmare. Sometimes we fill five to six planes a night.” The Cordova airport can accommodate a plane no larger than a Boeing 737 and a charter flight will take up to 30,000 pounds of fish.

Silver Lining was owned by NorQuest Seafoods but NorQuest was sold to Trident Seafood in early June.

Like most processors of Alaska seafood, Trident Seafoods is based in Seattle. Trident is one of the largest employers in the state’s seafood industry, with 4,500 employees in Alaska. The company is trying to create new product forms for pink salmon that would add value to the plentiful fish.

“Between the four processors, we ship around 4.5 million pounds of fish a year,” said Gilbert. “Seventy-five percent of it is shipped between mid-May and mid-June. Nerves get pretty frayed. It’s a very exciting time.”

King, while prized and pricey, is only one of five salmon types. Cordova gets all of them, plus a few other species.

Sustainable management

Salmon stocks had been in decline until Alaska became a U.S. state in 1959 and the state took over resource management. The new state’s Constitution mandated management of natural resources using a “sustained yield” principle. Stocks rose steadily into the 1990s, reaching record high totals and harvests. Dan Grey, biologist with the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Department in Cordova, said the management regime has been so successful that 98 percent of Alaska’s managed fish populations are healthy, not listed by the federal government as “stocks of concern” as many fisheries in the lower 48 are.

Alaska’s five types of Pacific salmon all belong to the genus Oncorhynchus. The species are: gorbuscha or pink, also known as humpy; keta or chum, also known as keta; kisutch or coho, also known as silver; nerka, or sockeye, also known as red, and tschawytscha or King, also known as chinook.

Spawning habits differ a little, but all species are anadromous, spawning in fresh water, migrating to the sea to mature, and returning to the stream of their birth to spawn. All Pacific salmon die after spawning, providing food for bears, birds and useful insects. Kings and sockeye arrive from mid-May till mid-June. “Then chums pick up as the Kings are diminishing. In August, the chums and sockeye decline and the silver coho come in.” The plentiful pinks arrive, too, but most of them still go to canneries and Silver Lining doesn’t process pinks.

Observers say the Yukon River salmon will soon give the Copper River salmon serious competition. The Yukon is longer than the Copper so the fish contains even more fat and biologists say it’s primarily marketing and the early run that has given the Copper River fish its edge.

Alaska’s salmon fisheries are tightly regulated, with management regimes that include prohibitions on fishing too far offshore so salmon cannot be prevented from returning to their streams. Managers can close or reopen fishing areas in response to fish behaviors, water levels and other factors. Fisheries openings are also monitored closely for `escapement’ upriver to spawn and are closed to insure enough fish reach their spawning destination to guarantee healthy future runs.

To protect the wild salmon, salmon farming was banned in the state in 1990. Since salmon harvests take place near shore, the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Department manages the stocks and the more than 15,000 salmon streams along the state’s 47,300 miles of coastline. Fishing is controlled by limiting entry. No new licenses are issued and people wishing to enter the fishery must buy an existing license from another fisherman. Gear is also strictly regulated, from vessel size to the material used in nets and a ban on trawling for salmon. King and sockeye are the most valuable species, while pink goes mostly to cans. Seventy-seven percent of pinks are hatchery fish, raised from eggs to fingerlings and released. These hatchery fish return to the site of their release where most of them are taken by fishermen, according to state biologist Dan Gray with the Alaska Fish and Game Department in Cordova. In 2003, Alaskan fishermen caught 177 million salmon and the 2004 runs looked just as good to observers when they began. Around 30 hatcheries are employed to raise pinks and chums, mostly in southeast Alaska. Hatchery fish are raised and released away from the wild stocks and are no longer operated by the state, but were turned over to private, nonprofit groups. A total of 45 million hatchery pinks are caught in Prince William Sound annually and a total of 77 percent of the state’s pinks are hatchery-raised. “Tourism now dominates the Southeast Alaska economic engine,” said Gilbert.