Salmon markets see unprecedented prices at start of season

by: KIRO 7 News Staff Updated:

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SEATTLE - The season’s first catch of prized Copper River salmon made a 1,300 mile journey from Cordova, Alaska, and arrived in Seattle Friday morning via a Boeing "salmon 30 salmon."

The event serves as the unofficial start of the summer grilling season.

The price of salmon are always highest the first few weeks, but some in the industry say overall salmon prices this year are the highest ever.

Jon Speltz, who owns Wild Salmon Seafood Market in Fisherman’s Terminal in Seattle, said he’s seeing unprecedented prices.

“The fisherman get paid the highest ever,” Speltz said.  “And that kind of trickles down the distribution chain as far as everybody is paying more.”

Right now he’s selling fresh caught Alaskan King Salmon for $17.99 a pound for the entire fish. When the Copper River Salmon arrive Friday afternoon Speltz will sell the Copper River King for $34 a pound and the Sockeye for $23.99 a pound. As usual, prices are expected to drop a few dollars after Memorial Day.

Alaska Fish and Game said the Copper River King Salmon forecast is 29,000, the smallest since 1985. But Tom Sunderland of Ocean Beauty Seafoods is still bullish on the Alaskan outlook as a whole.

“I will speak for Alaska,” Sunderland said. “They are certainly not in decline. There's a lot of different fisheries. When you take the whole state-wide, the fisheries have never been healthier. You might have one individual fishery or river that's down any particular year.  You'll have an individual catch or river that doesn't come through, but you have others that do come through.”

As for salmon in the Northwest, expectations for Chinook salmon in the Columbia River were just cut in half to the range of 75,000  And Speltz is seeing lower yields from Puget Sound and the Washington Coast, but he maintains when you get it on the grill, it'll taste just as good.

“In addition to a low catch we're finding a lot of the fish are quite a bit smaller, especially with the King Salmon,” said Speltz. “They don't seem to be feeding like they did in past years.”

About the Copper River salmon craze

What’s become a culinary and cultural cause celebre didn’t even exist just a few decades ago.

Back in the 1980’s no one had heard of Copper River salmon. In fact, the fish was so undervalued, it was being canned or frozen and exported to Japan, where it sold for so little many fishermen were throwing in the towel.

And although the surviving fishermen wanted to make more money for their catch, it wasn’t in the best of shape.

“The fish was canned so it got retorted. They didn’t have to take care of their fish and the handling the fishery was just not very good,” said veteran Seattle restaurant and food consultant Jon Rowley.

You could call Rowley the grandfather of the Copper River craze.

He was looking for something special for a handful of Seattle restaurants including Ray’s Boathouse. And he figured if they could offer the first and the best king salmon of the season, it could be something special.

Rowley had learned of the then virtually unknown Copper River from a friend who owned the old Port Chatham cannery. Rowley loved the big, fatty canned salmon, jerky, and other products – and the owner told him where it came from.

So he traveled to Alaska, where he found the boats weren’t up to snuff. His first challenge was convincing the fishermen they needed to upgrade.

“Their boats were small and their decks weren’t set up to do things right. Initially, they told me they couldn’t do it. And then when they got close to the season they said ‘yeah, we’d like to try this,'” Rowley recounted.

They did, quickly catching and then packing up a single box and shipping it to Seattle and the four restaurants without much fanfare.

But as soon as they served it, it was clear they had a hit on their hands

MyNorthwest contributed to this story. 

FILE: Alaska Airlines Captain Jeff Latta, left, and First Officer Melissa Van Dyke, right, hold up a Copper River King Salmon, Tuesday, May 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)