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Copper River salmon fishery opens during coronavirus concerns

Copper River Salmon
Copper River Salmon(KTUU)
Published: May. 13, 2020 at 1:39 PM AKDT
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Thursday morning the Copper River salmon season began bright and early at 7 A.M. The salmon are famous for commanding high prices across America -- with this popular fishery known as the earliest salmon opener in Alaska.

But, during the coronavirus pandemic fears remain high. How could the fishing season coincide with the need to keep coronavirus numbers low?

"We want to continue to be very vigilant, but we do want to have our economy reopen and get our small businesses back on our feet," Mayor of Cordova Clay Koplin said. "This is killing them."

Koplin says the fishermen and processors are following state mandates.

Copper River salmon is desirable. It glistens with hard-earned fat, a product of thousands of miles of migration and eating, from birth in the snow-fed headwaters of Alaskan rivers to a life lived in the sea. It's an ultra-rich fish that's described as a joy to eat and a pleasure to cook.

But to harvest those fish thousands of fishermen and processing workers are expected to enter Cordova, a community with about 2,000 year-round residents. Many will come from out of state.

"We live in a bubble, and I very much think our bubble is about to burst," lifelong Cordova resident Sylvia Lange said in an interview on April 13. "While we are pretty much first, we are not alone, and I feel for every single community that has to go through this."

Thursday morning, while wearing a mask, Lange said the hospital is making backup plans in case people get sick.

"This town lives and breaths on the fishing industry," Lange said, " We don't have an economy here without it."

The Copper River fishery is managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the state is requiring any workers arriving in Alaska, from Outside, to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Still, Cordova's first positive case of coronavirus was an Ocean Beauty Seafoods worker who had traveled to the Prince William Sound community from Seattle. The worker was asymptomatic and his case was caught by his company's routine testing of employees. The case highlighted fears by many in the community, and other fishing towns, who raised concerns about the large influx of people coming to the area from across the country.

"We didn't have a single case until last week, we would like to keep it that way, " Koplin said. "But on the other hand we recognize that it's a free country and everybody that fishes here has a permit, and it's our whole economy. I mean 95 percent of Cordova's economy is fishing. So if we don't do it we gotta have a second disaster on our hands."

In addition to concerns about slowing the spread of COVID-19, there is the added presser that fewer restaurants are open and able to buy the expensive fish, which means the product will be frozen and sold at lower prices.

"Most of the Copper River fish, off the first two weeks, goes to restaurants and food service. And that market's just not there. So we have to wait and see what the strength of the retail business is," Scott Blake the CEO of Copper River Seafoods said.

Most people recognize the season opener as a highly polished public relations event where freshly caught salmon is loaded into an Alaska Airlines plane, the famous Salmon-30-Salmon that is decked out to look like a salmon, and flown to Seattle to the outstretched arms of high profile chefs. Last year at Elliott's Oyster House in Seattle a sockeye salmon entree cost around $56 dollars while a king salon dinner cost $66 a plate.

"Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we will be holding off on these events until it is safe to do so in our new normal," said Jim Kostka, marketing director for Copper River Seafoods. "Things are moving forward in a positive direction promoting some normality in the atmosphere we find ourselves in due to the pandemic and good things are happening... such as fresh Alaska King Salmon on your grill."

Blake says last year fishermen were netting prices of $14 for kings and $10 for sockeyes. He expects those numbers to be lower this year.

"Reality is reality. And the fact that people aren't going out, and the food service industry is really struggling, and I don't want to be not be optimistic, but I don't want to create a false reality of something that's not there right now," Blake said.

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