First Copper River salmon arrives in Seattle

SEATTLE — The first batch of the celebrated fish from Cordova, Alaska arrived in Seattle Friday morning.

As is customary, Alaska Airlines flew in thousands of pounds of the salmon on its Boeing “Salmon Thirty Salmon,” which sports an image of a wild 129-foot long Alaska king salmon.

The first shipment was 18,000 pounds.

The fatty fish got the red-carpet treatment, with the pilot carrying the first king salmon off the plane at Sea-Tac Airport for a quick photo shoot. As has become a recent KIRO 7 custom in the last few years, our reporter, this year Rob Munoz, kissed the first king salmon off the plane.

The arrival of fresh Copper River king and sockeye salmon is a well-known spring tradition in Seattle, where the fish are prized for their rich flavor. They typically bring the highest prices at restaurants and fish markets.

But how much will it cost per pound this year?  Last year’s harvest was overestimated, and prices were high, but usually drop after a few weeks. KIRO 7 found king Copper River salmon at QFC Friday for $59.99 a pound.

This year, Alaska forecasted a strong run of Copper River kings after numbers were down last year.  Jim Kostka with Copper River Seafoods, who was at Sea-Tac Airport when the fish arrived, told KIRO 7 that appears to be the case and that this year's run is much better than the disappointing numbers in 2018.

The Alaska Journal of Commerce reports that the forecast for a return 55,000 Copper River kings is about 20 percent above the recent 10-year average run of 46,000 fish, according to the Prince William Sound 2019 forecast.

About the Copper River salmon craze

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

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?" a Pike Place Fish Market fishmonger 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.