Marketing, timing behind leap of Copper River salmon AP Photo pursuing

Posted: Tuesday, May 30, 2000

Anchorage Daily News

An Alaska AP Member Exchange

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Imagine a fish so important it needs a motorcycle escort through downtown Seattle.

A fish so romantic it can ''marry'' a bottle of wine in a Chicago ceremony.

A fish so vital that a veteran Cordova fisherman pushes himself and his boat to the limit to deliver the first catch of the season.

That's Copper River salmon, a fish whose hype seems to get hotter every year.

Once upon a time, Copper River king and red salmon were hardly more special than a Cook Inlet or Kodiak or Southeast salmon. Now, in the view of one big Seattle fish buyer, Copper River salmon is ''royal fish.''

It's a commodity craze comparable to California's bing cherry, Georgia's Vidalia onion, Maine's lobster, even France's Beaujolais Nouveau wine, some say.

How did Copper River fish manage to leap so high?

It's a combination of good fish, good timing and good marketing.

Seattle food marketer Jon Rowley is generally recognized as the founder of the Copper River sensation.

In the early 1980s, he saw a chance to make the fish famous as a fresh and expensive entree in fancy restaurants, but only if he could convince the fishermen working the dangerous Copper River flats to handle the fish with a bit more finesse.

''Back then the boats had no refrigeration, and they fished for long periods. Then they were put on tender boats, which also had no refrigeration. And then they were taken to the cannery. I'm telling you, a lot of that stuff was just mush, you know,'' Rowley said. ''So there were handling problems that had to be overcome if they were even going to think about marketing fresh fish.''

Rowley remembers how, in October 1982, he sat down with some Alaska fishermen at McCormick's Fish House restaurant to talk over a plan to rush down some fresh Copper River king salmon as soon as the fishing started the following May.

It meant carrying lots of ice on already cramped boats. And dressing the fish. And extracting them from the net with as little scale loss as possible. These fish had to be not only fresh but pretty.

Most all Copper River fishermen see the importance of such fish-handling etiquette nowadays, and credit it with greatly boosting the payoff of their catches. But in 1983, only Tom Johnson of Cordova cared to take part in what Rowley called ''the experiment.''

Using a floatplane and a commercial jet, Johnson and Rowley managed to get 300 pounds of king salmon to Seattle, where Rowley shotgunned them to four restaurants.

''I had gotten these restaurants all excited about the first batch of fish coming down from the Copper River,'' Rowley said. ''I thought they were the world's best salmon -- I slipped that in, which gets people's attention. From that first shipment of fish it was pretty clear what was going to happen. The customers would say, 'Oh, man, that's the best salmon I've ever eaten.' There was just this electric response.''

But even Rowley admits there's more to the Copper River craze than taste. More significantly, the Copper River king and red run is the first big salmon run in Alaska each year.

Another factor: the Copper River fishing grounds are hardly five minutes by floatplane from Cordova, which is served by commercial jetliners.

And then there's marketing.

Rowley and others have pushed Copper River fish into pricey restaurants and grocery stores across the country. And they've engineered some outlandish publicity stunts.

In Chicago, Rowley once put on a ''royal marriage'' of Copper River king salmon and Oregon Pinot Noir wine at Shaw's Crab House. (Marketing secret: the original plan had Columbia River king salmon at the altar, but when none was available Copper River stood in.)

The race to get the first fish from net to plate has become an annual media event in Seattle, and this year might have been the topper.

Cordova fisherman Pip Fillingham managed to get eight fat king salmon onto a chartered helicopter only 28 minutes after the fishing season opened May 15. The fish landed in Seattle by early afternoon and got a motorcycle escort of off-duty cops to Larry's Markets, where two chefs barbecued the fish as giveaway samples.

Tamara Wilson, the public relations dynamo for Larry's Markets, said she arranged the motorcycle escort to ''hedge her bets.'' Last year, she said, President Clinton was in town on opening day and her client's fish got stuck in a traffic jam.

''Next year,'' she vowed, ''I'm going to get the 'Today Show' up here. Can you see Matt Lauer on the Copper River?''

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