ANCHORAGE - A long dormant chinook fishery will be the first to open Alaska's summer salmon season this year, beating out the much-anticipated Copper River run for the coveted marketing rush.
Government biologists say there are enough kings in Southeast Alaska's Taku and Stikine rivers to open the gillnet fishery on May 2. That's about two weeks earlier than the Copper River fishery, which normally opens around May 15 each year.
Southeast commercial fishermen and seafood processors now have first shot at the same free-spending buyers who have made Copper River salmon a springtime culinary sensation from Seattle to Chicago to Washington, D.C.
But they don't believe the Taku and Stikine fish can take a serious bite out of Copper River mania, at least not this year.
"Copper River has done such a wonderful job of marketing," said Juneau fish processor Mike Erickson, owner of Alaska Glacier Seafoods Inc. "Taku and Stikine will be the new kids on the block right now. It takes a while to build a name."
Buyers could even pass on the Southeast kings to wait for the Copper River fish coming two weeks later, he said.
Regardless, fish folk in Cordova, the main Copper River port, said they don't feel threatened. And nobody showed much interest in starting a cross-state fish fight.
What's more important, they said, is promoting a comeback for all Alaska wild salmon against foreign, farm-raised salmon that's taken over world markets in the last decade.
Besides, said Jerry McCune, a gillnetter who heads the main commercial fishing association in Cordova, "Copper River guys never claimed that we had the first kings on the market."
Indeed, that distinction has always belonged to Southeast trollers - hook-and-line fishermen who pull kings one at a time from the region's fiords, bays and outside ocean waters. The trollers hold state permits to catch kings even during the winter, providing a small but steady trickle of expensive fresh fish to the markets.
But in two weeks, fishermen who use gillnets will get a shot at catching thousands of king salmon at the Taku River near Juneau and the Stikine River near Petersburg.
Copper River gillnetters are best known for their sockeye or red salmon but they also catch king salmon, which are most abundant during the first few days of the season.
The Copper River fleet will still be able to boast the year's first reds, McCune said. And he doubts the early Southeast fishery will hurt demand for Copper River kings.