Jane Says: Really Expensive Wild Salmon Is Really Worth It

Top dollar doesn’t only mean good fish—it means good ecosystem management too.

Pink salmon swimming upstream to spawn. (Photo: Joel Sartore/Getty Images)

Jul 8, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

I know I should avoid farmed salmon, but I thought all wild salmon was pretty much the same. Why is Copper River salmon such a big deal?

Ty Brendan

The maxim “You are what you eat” is constantly bandied about these days, and for good reason. It applies not just to humans but to the animals they eat, including salmon.

Farmed salmon, which spend their lives swimming around in marine net pens—or, far less frequently, in land-based recirculating aquaculture systems—are given formulated fish pellets on a regular schedule. (I know! But if we go off on that tangent, I’ll never get around to answering the question.)

Wild salmon, on the other hand, forage in the open ocean for zooplankton, squid, shrimp, and other small crustaceans, and/or little fish such as sand lance. They are anadromous—that is, even though they spend much of their lives at sea, they spawn in freshwater rivers—and are genetically adapted to return to their natal rivers to reproduce. Researchers say that by using the Earth’s magnetic field as a navigational guide, wild salmon can identify one stream out of thousands.

Once salmon enter freshwater on their journey upriver to spawn, they stop feeding and survive on stored energy reserves. Therein lies the basis of the Copper River mystique.

“Longer rivers like the Yukon [almost 2,000 miles] or rivers with difficult terrain like the Copper River, in Alaska, require more stored energy in the form of fats and oils,” said Jon Rowley in a conversation a few years back. A former fisher in his home state of Alaska and now a seafood business consultant based in Seattle, he’s become a worldwide authority on salmon and oysters—and a fish missionary to the food world. Those energy reserves are what give wild salmon its flavor and succulence, Rowley added. And they make it one of the richest natural sources of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

In 1983, Rowley and a group of fishers from Cordova, Alaska, introduced Copper River salmon, most of which was typically canned or frozen for export to Japan, to restaurant chefs in the Lower 48. The rest, as they say, is branding history. The Copper River king salmon was noticeably different in flavor, texture, and mouthfeel from other king salmon available at the time, Rowley said. “It’s genetically programmed to produce the oils needed to conquer the surging downflow of turbulent rapids and wild canyons of the Copper River. The river is only 300 miles long, but because it drops nearly 4,000 feet, it makes up in turbulence what it lacks in length. The Copper River king is a fat-bellied, well-muscled thoroughbred.”

Some would say an even more important difference was in the on-board protocols Rowley and the fishers instituted. The use of gillnets, which minimizes bycatch and allows each fish to be harvested by hand; immediate bleeding and chilling; and quick transport to the shore processor all improve the overall quality of the catch. As the fishers improved their handling practices, processors and shippers followed suit, and “Copper River” soon became synonymous with the most pristine, highest-quality salmon. With a short season, demand is high, with prices to match. At this writing, the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle is selling fresh Copper River king salmon fillet for $34.99 a pound and Copper River sockeye fillet for $23.99 a pound. (For availability near you, check the Copper River locator app, and as with buying any seafood, know your fishmonger.)

So, Why Should You Care? The ahead-of-trend marketing of Copper River salmon has raised the profile of one of nature’s great linchpins. Over their long evolutionary history, salmon have developed complex adaptations to survive, exploit, and transfer resources among freshwater, estuarine, marine, and terrestrial ecosystems. Salmon returning to their natal rivers to spawn transport millions of tons of nutrients from the open ocean to the coast, benefiting all levels of the food chain—from bacteria and algae to terrestrial predators such as eagles, foxes, bears, and humans. Enjoying the flavor of that evolution in a responsible manner helps maintain the whole system.

Wild salmon are extremely resilient, but their spawning behavior can cause enormous difficulties: Most wild Atlantic salmon runs have succumbed to river pollution, habitat destruction, or over-silting of spawning grounds. You can find an up-to-date assessment in the 2014 report on fisheries by the Scotland-based North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization.

Even though many salmon runs on the Pacific coast are threatened or endangered, others are healthy, even thriving, especially in Alaska, where the management of stocks has been very successful. These days, wild salmon mostly comes from the five Pacific species listed below.

King (aka Chinook)

Kings stay at sea longer than other salmon species, which allows adults to reach a good 20 pounds or more. They spawn in large, deep, fast-moving rivers, so they have the greatest need for stored energy; that’s why the omega-3-enriched fat of a king can often exceed 20 percent—more than that of any other wild fish. Copper River kings are particularly fatty, unctuous, and rich. Available May–September; Copper River salmon, May–June.

Sockeye (aka Red)

Sockeyes, one of the most abundant salmon species, spawn in lakes as well as rivers and can spend up to three years building mass in freshwater before migrating to the ocean. (Landlocked populations are called kokanee salmon.) Sockeyes have deep-red flesh, and even though they’re second to kings in their total fat content, they have a cleaner flavor and firmer texture, which I (and many salmon lovers) prefer. Available May–August; Copper River salmon, May–August.

Coho (aka Silver)

Cohos generally spend one to two years in freshwater before migrating to the sea and occupy the midrange on the fat scale. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the ability to jump over obstacles, such as beaver dams and waterfalls, allows cohos to migrate farther upstream than other salmon can. In a stream’s higher reaches, the water is shallower, and there are fine gravels to nest in. Cohos have a milder, more delicate flavor than kings or sockeyes. Available June–September; Copper River salmon, August–September.

Chum (aka Keta, Silverbrite, Dog)

According to NOAA Fisheries, chums have the widest natural geographic and spawning distribution of any Pacific salmon, with spawning populations known from Korea and Japan and into the far north of Russia. Although the Yukon River king salmon run is expected to continue its low numbers this year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game predicts a strong summer and fall chum run. Because they spawn in streams close to estuaries, chums have the shortest migration of any Pacific species, so they don’t store large amounts of fat. (Predictably, Yukon chums are higher in oil content than other runs.) Mild in flavor, they’ve become popular in salmon burgers and sausages. Sold whole, wild Alaskan keta is a bargain compared with king, sockeye, or coho. The plump, bright-orange eggs (the salmon roe you see on sushi) are prized in Japan, where they’re called ikura. Available July–September.

Pink (aka Humpy)

Pinks are the smallest and most abundant salmon species. They have the lowest fat content because they spawn in estuaries or the lower reaches of rivers and migrate to the sea shortly after hatching. The delicate pink flesh is more similar in flavor and texture to trout but is delicious fresh or hot-smoked. Most pinks are sold to canneries; some are sold whole. Available July–September.