LOCAL NEWS

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)
(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.

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Meet the godfather of the Copper River salmon craze