ANCHORAGE -- Alaska's salmon fishing season officially got under way at 7 a.m. Monday when commercial fishers dropped their nets in the Gulf of Alaska to catch kings and sockeye headed for the Copper River.
Two hours after the opening, the first of the fish was whisked by helicopter and plane to Seattle markets hungry for the first salmon of the season.
''It's kind of a relief when it finally happens. Everybody's been busy getting ready,'' said Sue Aspelund, executive director of Cordova District Fishermen Uni-ted.
About 500 commercial fishing boats are expected to harvest 60,000 Copper River kings and 1.2 million sockeye until the runs end in late July, said Dan Sharp, the Copper River area biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
''That's a little less than last year's forecasted harvest but close to the recent 10-year average,'' Sharp said.
Fishing was said to be slow Monday due to an early low tide, rain and choppy seas, Aspelund said. Winds were gusting to 35 knots.
''They're earning their money today for sure,'' she said.
Processors were expecting a busy night Monday after fishers brought in their catch when the fishery closed at 7 p.m. The 80 workers at the NorQuest Seafoods plant in Cordova were ready, said plant manager Bill Gilbert.
''We've been doing halibut and black cod for about the past month, so they're broken in,'' Gilbert said. ''We're looking forward to a busy year.''
The fleet appeared to be catching more kings than sockeye, he said. Norquest was offering $1.90 a pound for sockeye and $2.35 for kings Monday afternoon, and the price was expected to go higher as the fishery progressed, Gilbert said.
Prized for their rich flavor, Copper River salmon often fetch premium prices. The opening of the fishery has been accompanied by a marketing blitz in recent years and Monday's opening was no exception.
Seattle's high-end Thriftway supermarkets tracked the arrival of the fish on a Web site, www.copperriverfestival.com, from the time two 25-pound kings were landed aboard the Janda II to their arrival at SeaTac Airport.
The store was planning a celebratory barbecue for what it billed as the ''world's best'' salmon.
Copper River fishers likely will have two openings each week until the runs end in late July, as long as enough salmon make it upriver to meet spawning goals, Sharp said.
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