Last week, a veteran Alaska fisherman was stopped dead in midstroll at the Pike Place Market by the sight of gleaming salmon on display: "First in of the Copper River king run," he was told. The price: only $17 a pound filleted.
Ridiculous? Sure, but to be expected only two days after the opening of the Copper River season—if the fish was really what it was claimed to be. The fisherman had his doubts. The salmon was a little on the small side for a Copper, and the scales didn't have the characteristic pearly Copper gleam.
But the giveaway, he thought, were the fishes' heads. They were there, you see. And with air-freight costs from Alaska to Seattle being what they are, nobody in his right mind ships the heavy, inedible head except for special presentation effect.
Pike Place Market honcho Shelly Yapp says that every merchant's lease contains clauses warning about misrepresentation, and every complaint received is immediately looked into. "When we heard about this, we immediately talked to all four of our fish merchants," she says, "and we're sure there's no mislabeling. If nothing else, the competition between the merchants would make it pretty hard to pull something like that."
Maybe so. But with the heavily promoted Coppers selling for up to $10 a pound wholesale—five times the price of perfectly presentable kings troll-caught off the Washington coast—the incentive for deception is certainly there.
This year the good-humored game of being first in town with the succulent Copper kings tipped over into mania, with three TV stations covering the arrival of the first fish at Sea-Tac less than eight hours after it was hooked. So heavy was the competition for product at the port of Cordova, Alaska—the nearest packing and shipping town to the Copper River Delta—that fishers were getting $5 a pound for whole fish right off the boat. The town was swirling with rumors that the big packing companies, long indifferent to the Copper craze, were deliberately promoting the bidding frenzy in hopes of driving independent brokers and distributors out of the business. Cordova sources say a buyer from Japan was also helping to bid up the price, the first time the Japanese have appeared in the market.
For the consumer, the possibility of paying the grossly inflated Copper price for plain home-caught fish is troubling, though one doesn't have to be an ichthyologist to avoid being burned. Coppers are so dark-fleshed and so obviously larded between segments with luscious (and healthful) omega-3 oils that most other salmon look pallid beside them. A good part of what you're paying for with top-grade Copper kings is utter freshness: The skin should gleam, the flesh should smell briny and clean. And at $15 to $18 a pound, you have every right to smell your purchase before it's shrink-wrapped.