Fish Story

A Seattle chef gets up close at last with the salmon he loves.

It's 5 a.m., and even though I didn't get to bed until almost midnight, I'm wide awake. Bed is on a boat anchored near the mouth of the Copper River near Cordova, Alaska. Diesel fumes wend their way up from the engine room, and the silver glow of a sun barely dipping below the horizon fills the cabin with eerie light. What makes it impossible to get back to sleep, though, is the knowledge that in less than two hours, the season will begin, and in a matter of minutes, the world's best salmon will be pulled from its home waters.

By 7, I am standing on the deck of a 32-foot aluminum bow picker named Whatever, specifically designed to fish the dangerous Copper Delta flats, which are notorious for storms, ocean swells, and shifting shallows. I'm watching a man named Pip Fillingham lower a gill net into the water. Also aboard are three others as determined as I am to help perpetuate the enthusiasm that surrounds the arrival of this fish on the market every year. Eric Chappell from Pacific Seafood is our host. Chef Dan Thiessen from Chandler's Crabhouse is ready to phone in a live report to KCPQ-TV as soon as a fish comes on board. And photographer Marc Lester of the Anchorage Daily News, moonlighting on a book project, is snapping pictures like crazy.

For a long time, I have been singing the praises of Copper River salmon, and people often want to know, "Does it really merit all the hype?" I always pipe back a wholehearted "Yes," citing a well-rehearsed refrain of clean, clear water, omega-3 fatty acids, and wild and wonderful fish whose well-being helps sustain a wild and wonderful world. But I have to say that until coming here and being surrounded by the majesty and tedium of opening day, I've been hard-pressed to justify why I love these fish so much.

IT'S TRUE THAT salmon from this particular fishery have been showered with more ink and air time than the average candidate for president, but Copper River salmon are truly remarkable and unique. Wherever they hail from, a king is a king and a sockeye is a sockeye. But just as cabernet grapes grown in Washington's Columbia Valley are different than cabernet grapes grown in California's Napa Valley, so the salmon population from a particular river is different than salmon from anywhere else.

This powerful river, flowing into the Gulf of Alaska near Prince William Sound, demands that its native fish be fortified with a great deal of energy to make the perilous journey to their spawning grounds. Between the ocean swells that break against the sandbars along the 60-mile stretch of delta and the first splash of pure river water is an intricate patchwork of land and water, salt and fresh, covering 750,000 acres. Before returning home to spawn, salmon store energy in the form of fat, and much of that fat is the omega-3 variety that lowers cholesterol, protects blood vessels from stress, and may even reduce the risk of certain cancers.

But there is more to the enjoyment of these salmon than health benefits. The mere glistening appearance of the fish, whether on the plate or still in the round, evokes the primordial stuff we're all made of. And there's the iodine rush of ocean in its aroma. Even the feel of this fish in the mouth is an awakening of the sense of touch. Properly cooked, its surface is faintly crisped, its interior smooth and voluptuous. And there is also a kind of psychic joy in knowing that this is one of the last good things on earth, food in a state of Eden-pure, unadulterated excellence. I admit that I am almost as enamored of the mystique that surrounds the gathering and marketing of this fish as I am of the fish itself.

FIERCELY ECCENTRIC and wildly courageous, the four hundred souls who live by fishing Copper River salmon have as tenuous a hold on their way of life as the fish they pursue. The fishery is vital to the local economy: The copper mines are used up, shores that once boasted the heartiest population of razor clams in North America were destroyed by the Good Friday earthquake in 1964, herring that once accounted for 20 percent to 30 percent of the fleet's annual revenue disappeared in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. And in the last 10 years, exponential growth of salmon farming in the lower 48 has caused the price of most Alaskan salmon to plummet.

I used to think that Copper River season was a bonus to Alaska's healthy economy. Instead, it appears to be the last functional piece of a crumbling system. Without being here on opening day, I never would have known that the day before the opening everyone in Cordova is pumped up, worried sick, and filled with hope as bright and rich as the red-toned flesh of a sockeye salmon. When we go to the store to buy some snacks ($8 for a bunch of grapes!), everyone I see is smiling. I ask someone with me if everyone always smiles in Cordova. "They do on the night before opening day!" I'm told.

Every time I overhear a conversation in the bar, on the street, in the store, or on the ship-to-shore radio, I am brought inexplicably almost to tears by the passion in the voices of these people when they wish one another well. "Stay safe!" ends one conversation; "be careful," the next one. It's as if they're going to warevery fisherman is genuinely concerned about the safety of the others. Maybe I'm just sleep deprived, but I find this incredibly moving.

In Seattle, dead fish in a box represent a lucrative commodity; here in Alaska, the living salmon are an elusive prey whose capture and death means survival for the hunter. And if this fishery works in part because a lot of media hype keeps the price at a level that will provide these people with a sustainable living, then I say long live the media hype. If it takes hype to make people mindful of what they are eating, to wake them up from their farm-raised, overfed, trans fatty acid-induced stupor, then on with the hype. I say: Sound the alarm! Wake up and smell the Copper River salmon!

Former executive chef at Canlis, Greg Atkinson is the coordinator of culinary and garden programs for the environmental learning center IslandWood. He writes a biweekly column for the Sunday Seattle Times' Pacific Magazine.

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