The story behind the $50/lb hype of Copper River salmon

by: Linzi Sheldon Updated:


SEATTLE - Copper River salmon get the red carpet treatment year after year in Seattle, but the fish weren't always so popular and expensive.

Jon Rowley is the marketing maven who envisioned something bigger for the fish, which was mostly sent to canneries back in the 1980s.

"It's become quite a phenomenon, this Copper River business, don't you think?" he said.

"In 1983, who knew that the Copper River would soon be one of the most sought-after kind of salmon in the world?" Pike Place Fish Market fishmonger Taho Kakutani said.

The fish market got about 15 Copper River king salmons on Friday and sold out.

"We don't mind paying 30, 35 dollars for a dinner to have a fillet of Copper River salmon," Nancy McGinnis said.

Rowley said he began his marketing push by urging fishermen to take better care of the fish, putting them on ice and handling them carefully.

"You want every scale possible on that fish," he said. "You can increase the perception of value just by having all the scales on there."

Then he marketed them to several popular restaurants, including Ray's Boathouse. Customers loved them.

"I could feel that it was going to be something," he said.

Next, Rowley created urgency: a race to get the first Copper River salmon to Seattle.

"I'd send dispatches down from Alaska on where the fish was, what plane it was going to be on," he said.

That tradition has now morphed into a big presentation by Alaska Airlines, which began its own event in 1996.

Today, some believe Rowley, agreeing it's the best, fattiest salmon available locally.

Others call it hype.

"It's going to cook up the same, it's going to taste the same, you're really not going to be able to tell the difference," Rich Porter said.