David in CordovaCopper River Sockeye Salmon and King Salmon are some of the most sought after fish in the world.  Every year in mid May restaurants in the Pacific Northwest jockey to be among the first to serve the year’s first run of fresh Copper River Sockeye Salmon on their menus.  And various news agencies including Reuter’s and the Seattle Times report on the arrival of this famed salmon.  I was fortunate enough to be on one of the boats on opening day in May 2009 to witness this phenomenon.  The salmon caught that day were literally being served in my restaurant, and others, within 24 hours of having come out of the pristine, cold waters of the Copper River Delta near Cordova, Alaska.

The Copper River’s origin is the Copper Glacier on Mount Wrangell, Alaska.  The Copper River (or Ahtna River) is a 300-mile (480 km) long river in south-central Alaska in the United States. It has an elevation gain of over 1000 feet from its mouth to its source. It is known for its prolific runs of wild salmon, which are among the most highly prized stocks in the world. The Copper River is the tenth largest river in the United States, as ranked by average water-flow volume at its mouth.

Copper River Salmon Journey

Wild Alaskan Copper River Sockeye Salmon
Image from Wikipedia-click for licensing

Wild Alaskan Copper River Sockeye & King Salmon travel as far as 1000 miles to their spawning grounds to mate, lay their eggs, and die.  When they leave the ocean and begin the long fight up the rapids riddled river they begin to change color from silver to bright red and their eating habits diminish.  Consequently, Copper River Sockeye Salmon store huge amounts of fat in order to travel the final stretch of their long journey.  It is this high fat content which gives them their rich, characteristic flavor.  And the fat they are rich in is high in omega-3 oils and therefore is a smart choice for a healthy diet.

Copper River Sockeye Salmon Flavor

Alaskan Copper River Sockeye Salmon for the table is caught before it begins the journey up river.  It is brightly silver and has flesh which is deep red or bright orange in color, a firm texture, and its renown rich, almost nutty flavor.

Oil Content

Copper River salmon are reputed to have the highest oil content of any salmon. Some people dispute this, especially in regards to Yukon Salmon which actually have to travel farther than the Coppers due. Here are the facts for Copper salmon: Kings have an average oil content of 18% – 21% (Springers = 16%, Washington trolls = 12%). Copper Sockeyes average 14%, while other sockeyes average 10% – 11% oil content.

Copper River Salmon Commercial Fishery

Cordova Alaska MarinaThe first commercial fishery on the Copper River was established in 1889.  Today the majority of the Copper River fishing fleet docks in the marina at Cordova, Alaska which is about 50 miles from the fishing grounds.

The commercial Copper River Salmon fishery & fishing season is strictly managed by the State of Alaska Fish & Game department.  In Alaska, salmon fisheries are managed according to the sustainable salmon fisheries policy which states that “salmon fisheries shall be managed to allow salmon escapements necessary to conserve and sustain potential salmon production and maintain normal ecosystem functioning.”

Copper Kings are usually available until the middle or end of June, while Copper Sockeyes are usually done around the middle of August. The nets used are typically 900 feet long and 25 feet deep with a mesh size of 6 inches.

Copper River Sockeye Salmon Videos

Below are some videos of sockeye salmon posted on YouTube.


This article was posted on ChefTalk in April 2010.

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