Meet the godfather of the Copper River salmon craze

May 17, 2016, 11:56 AM
The first Copper River salmon of the season arrives at Seatac Airport. (AP)...
The first Copper River salmon of the season arrives at Seatac Airport. (AP)

The much ballyhooed Copper River salmon has returned to Seattle to the delight of fish fans who clamor to spend upwards of $50 per pound for the coveted catch.

But 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

“The waiters would come back and say my customers are saying this is the best fish, the best salmon they’ve ever had,” Rowley said.

The following year they ordered more, and word began to spread.

In a stroke of genius, he sent some to celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck down in Los Angeles and a star was born.

Other buyers flooded the area, and Copper River Salmon became a must have in restaurants and grocery stores all over.

“We did a lot of razzle-dazzle marketing in the beginning. The name, Copper River. Madison Avenue couldn’t have come up with a better name to work with,” Rowley said.

It really was the perfect marriage of mother nature and marketing.

The salmon that return to the pristine river are first to spawn each spring, so they’re the first available to fishermen.

The fish themselves are a hearty lot. They pack on the pounds before a marathon 300-mile journey up the powerful river – which means super moist and extra flavorful fish.

“It’s one of those ideas that needed to happen. I just happened to come along. It’s amazing what it’s become,” Rowley said.

What it’s become is a cultural food phenomenon, especially here in the Northwest.

Thanks to Rowley’s PR prowess, at one point it proved to be more popular than the president.

“One year we had more cameras out at the airport to cover the arrival of the first fish than were covering President Clinton when he was speaking at the Rainier Club. That says something about Seattle, I think,” he said.

Rowley was honored in Cordova, Alaska several years ago for his role in creating what is now a multi-million dollar market, and even though he has nothing to do with Copper River salmon anymore, he says he’ll be among the first to shell out $50 bucks for a pound of the prized catch.

Local News

KTTH staff

Video: Gunfire erupts around bar outside of T-Mobile Park

Watch video of a shooting recorded from inside Tony T’s Sports Lounge Saturday morning.
16 hours ago
Ted Buehner

Mid-week heatwave forecast to envelop Western WA

Another period of warmer than average weather is on tap this week as a heatwave moves into Western Washington.
16 hours ago
seattle seahawks...
Frank Sumrall

Russell Wilson booed during Sue Bird tribute video, tension-filled reunion on the horizon

His segment in the tribute video was met with a shower of boos at Climate Pledge Arena earlier this week.
2 days ago
(KIRO 7)...
Nicole Jennings

Residents celebrate West Seattle Bridge reopening, but still much to do

There has been a lot of criticism over the two-and-a-half years the bridge has been closed, mainly over how long it has taken.
3 days ago
(KIRO 7)...
KIRO Newsradio Newsdesk

KIRO Newsradio Headlines: Lightning storms ignite 13 new wildfires in Eastern Washington

The KIRO Newsradio newsdesk brings you its top stories on the afternoon of Aug. 12.
3 days ago
Former U.S. President Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower to meet with New York Attorney General Letiti...
Associated Press

FBI seized top secret documents in Trump estate search

“Not only will I not oppose the release of documents," Trump said. "I am going a step further by ENCOURAGING the immediate release of those documents.”
3 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]

Compassion International Is Determined to ‘Fill’ a Unique Type of Football ‘Stadium’

Compassion International SPONSORED — During this fall’s football season—and as the pandemic continues to impact the entire globe—one organization has been urging caring individuals to help it “fill” a unique type of “stadium” in order to make a lasting difference in the lives of many. Compassion International’s distinctive Fill the Stadium (FtS, fillthestadium.com) initiative provides […]

What are the Strongest, Greenest, Best Windows?

Lake Washington Windows & Doors SPONSORED — Fiberglass windows are an excellent choice for window replacement due to their fundamental strength and durability. There is no other type of window that lasts as long as fiberglass; so why go with anything else? Fiberglass windows are 8x stronger than vinyl, lower maintenance than wood, more thermally […]
Meet the godfather of the Copper River salmon craze