Nestled in the thick of the Chugach National Forest, Cordova is quintessential small-town Alaska. It’s a place where everyone knows everyone, and like many coastal areas in Alaska, Cordova is only accessible by boat or plane. It’s a place where neighbors take care of one another, all united by passion for their community and the land they call home.
This humble town is home to a world-class fishery: the Copper River. Like most things in Cordova, the salmon fishery is largely independent, and the operation is as local as the shops and restaurants that line Main Street.
More than 540 independent boats fish for Copper River salmon each year. These boats, known as bow pickers, are manned by one to two fishermen who cast their nets over the bow and then hand-pick the salmon off as they reel the net in. Nets stretch 900 feet long and are mended by hand. And, many of those boats are owned by increasingly younger generations of fishermen and women.
“Copper River is largely considered to be an artisanal fishery,” says Kinsey Justa, programs coordinator for Copper River Marketing Association. “Each salmon is picked off the net by hand and specially handled and cared for by the fishermen to ensure a fresh, high-quality product when they return to shore.”
Ezekiel Brown is a 27-year-old fisherman. He’s fished the Copper River for seven years and after college, invested in his own bow picker – the F/V Meshed Up. Though his parents were not commercial fishermen, being born and raised in Alaska, Brown says he caught on to the fishing craze quick.
“I just can’t imagine doing anything else,” Brown says. “It’s a profession that is physically challenging and rewarding.”
Every year, roughly 2 million salmon spawn in the 290-mile long Copper River. The river stretches from the Copper Glacier in Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park all of the way to the Copper River Delta, roughly 30 miles from Cordova’s city center.
The salmon will fast as they make their way up river to spawn, and due to the river’s length and strong, cold waters, Copper River salmon are thick with muscle and fats to sustain them on their journey. Fishermen catch them in the Copper River Delta, just as the fish are beginning to move upstream.
Like many fishermen, Brown exudes a sense of pride for the quality salmon he is bringing to market.
“Copper River Salmon is just this really incredible fish,” he says. “It’s huge and filled with good fats and oils. This idea that I’m catching food for people and that within 48 hours this will be on a plate in a restaurant is just really incredible.”
Hayley Hoover comes from a long line of Alaska Native fishermen, and she is carrying her family’s fishing legacy into the future. In 2014 when she was in her early 20s, she purchased the F/V Obsidian from her dad. Today, the two fish the Copper River Delta together.
“We don’t always set out together, but we’ll definitely see each other out on the water,” Hoover said. “I do think he likes to keep an eye on me.”
This year’s opener marks Hoover’s fourth season running her own boat. She is one of about a dozen women with a permit to fish the Copper River Delta.
“This is one of the last professions out there that is truly wild,” Hoover said. “I just knew I wanted this to be a part of my life. And this realization has given me such a strong sense of place and self.”
In Alaska, there is a unique understanding of the connection between person and place. Sustainability is written into the Alaska State Constitution, and salmon counts and limits are managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to ensure plentiful salmon runs in the future.
“Our fishermen have a deep respect for this fishery and are very aware of their actions as it relates to sustainability,” says Justa. “If there are limitations this year to make sure they can fish five years from now, they’re okay with that. This is a wild fishery that we are lucky to be a part of.”
Kyle Kain of Seward, Alaska fishes the Prince William Sound and Copper River Delta. Kain got his first commercial fishing job when he was fifteen. Now 25, Kain owns his own boat, the F/V Salmonetta, and his passion and respect for the fish he nets remains.
“Every salmon you pick out of your net from the Copper River is a prize fish,” Kain said. “It’s beautiful and heavy. It’s everything you could want from a fish.”
This great respect for the environment is intrinsic to the culture in Alaska and important for young fishermen like Brown, Hoover, and Kain, who have bought in to the future of the industry. A commercial fishing boat and operation is not only physically demanding, but a huge financial investment.
“I’m so impressed by the young fishermen in our community,” Justa said. “They’re young but they’re making a commitment and real business decisions.”
When walking the docks of Cordova Harbor, young fishermen are abundant.
“You hear a lot about the ‘greying of the fleet’ here in Alaska,” Hoover said. “But here there are lots of young fishermen. We’ve grown up doing it and can’t imagine doing anything else.”
The Copper River fishery is the first fishery in Alaska to open for the summer season. The Copper River king and sockeye fishery was open for twelve hours on Thursday, May 18. The first king salmon of the season arrived via Alaska Air Cargo in Seattle and Anchorage the morning of May 19.