ANCHORAGE - For years, two upscale Seattle grocery stores battled to see which could fly in the first succulent Copper River salmon of the season.
Last year, Larry's Markets used one very fast Cordova fisherman, a helicopter, an Alaska Airlines jet and a motorcycle escort of off-duty Seattle cops to beat out its competitor, the Queen Anne Thriftway, by about half an hour.
But this year, the stores have called a truce. They plan to team up to rush king and red salmon over those 1,400 miles from the glacier-fed Copper River to the Emerald City.
"It's sort of like the Mir space station," said Rick Cavanaugh, seafood buyer for Queen Anne Thriftway. "Unthinkable last year and now we're working together."
Copper River 2001 launches Thursday, when more than 500 boats get 12 hours to chase what has been marketed as the world's finest salmon.
The excitement has become an annual rite of spring. Across the country, high-end restaurants, grocery stories and customers have been convinced to seek the fresh, wild and often very expensive Copper River fish.
Restaurants and grocery stores, particularly in Seattle, have turned the arrival of the first fish, only hours removed from the water, into a media and culinary event.
The Queen Anne Thriftway and Larry's Markets are small but prime independent grocery chains. Their stores are the kinds of places that have great wine selections, rich gourmet foods and, of course, fine seafood.
The two stores have spent thousands of dollars in the Copper River fish race, a gimmick to promote a season's supply of the fish in their stores. Chefs usually barbecue the first fish to give away to customers at their stores. And TV news cameras start rolling.
This year, they plan to split the cost in an effort to haul in more fish overall on opening day at a better price for consumers. Bob English, meat and seafood specialist for Larry's Markets, said he's hoping for as much as 10,000 pounds from opening day.
Success depends on the weather and the luck of the half-dozen fishermen who supply the stores.
The euphoria is tempered a little this year because of a weak commercial harvest forecast from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. If the predicted 640,000 reds proves out, it would be the lowest commercial harvest since 1988.
The low forecast is largely a result of increasing upriver catches by subsistence fishermen and a natural decline from the record harvests of the late 1990s, said Dan Sharp, the state's Cordova management biologist. But the run itself is healthy and robust, he said.
The Copper River salmon's celebrity is in the timing: It's the first major Alaska run of the year.
And one Seattle restaurant chain plans to beat the markets, at least for one customer.
Salty's asked contestants nationwide why they should be the first to feast on Copper River salmon. The winner will be flown to Cordova and fed a barbecued salmon right on the beach, said Operations Manager Kevin Rowlee.