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Copper River salmon: Worth the hype?
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Copper River salmon: Worth the hype?

Lined up for comparison, Atlantic farm-raised salmon (left), Columbia River king salmon (center) and the deep-red, dense Copper River sockeye salmon show striking differences in color and grain.
Copper River salmon season is here again, and "foodies" are all atwitter.

This seafood feast is available only during a limited season that begins every year around May 15 when regulatory authorities give the go-ahead for commercial fishermen in Alaska's Prince William Sound to begin catching the fish as they return to their native river to spawn.

Deep red, firm in texture and almost gamey in its rich flavor, it is undeniably excellent fish, and its quality - enhanced, perhaps, by wide publicity - makes it a sought-after delicacy during the brief annual season of four to six weeks when it's available. The first fresh shipments on ice to this inland city went on the market at a stunning $25 a pound, then fell back to a "mere" $20 or so after the first week. (One national natural-foods chain was briefly spotted selling it for $9.95. How old was it? Don't ask.)

Is Copper River salmon worth it? How does it compare to other salmon? And perhaps just as important, is it responsible to eat it, considering the environmental undercurrents surrounding salmon, habitat destruction and vanishing species?

In place of the usual recipes today, let's take a quick look at salmon in general and Copper River in particular.

For a simple test, I stopped by my favorite fishmonger (St. Matthews Seafood in Louisville) and picked up a selection of fresh salmon: 1/3 pound each of Copper River sockeye salmon from Alaska ($18.95), Columbia River king salmon from Washington State ($14.95), and Atlantic farmed salmon ($8.95). (King, sockeye and coho salmon are separate varieties - king salmon - sometimes called Chinook - spend the longest time at sea before returning to spawn, are the largest and generally considered the finest. Sockeye, also known as red salmon, and coho - silver salmon - are smaller and spend less time at sea.)

All seemed fresh, as you should expect from a quality vendor. Examined side-by-side, the color and texture differences among the three fish were startling: The Copper River demonstrated why sockeye is called "red," being a bright vermilion color, with a grain so fine that it looked almost like beef. The Columbia Valley king was a rich but lighter red-orange, classic "salmon" color. The Atlantic farm salmon, in contrast, was pale, almost a brownish-orange, with wide striations separating it into broad stripes. Subscribers to our HTML/graphics edition will see a small photo of the three fish above. Text subscribers who'd like to view a very large online image may find it at

Farm-raised salmon, by the way, is not naturally salmon color; farmed fish are often fed a supplement that artificially colors their flesh. U.S. regulations technically require that this be disclosed to the consumer, but the rule was widely ignored until a recent lawsuit drew attention to the issue, prompting many distributors to begin adding this information to packaging.

To compare the fish in as neutral a setting as possible, I prepared them simply, steaming the three boneless fillets over water and aromatics (garlic, fresh dill and white peppercorns) until they were just cooked through, about seven minutes, and serving them with the simple accompaniments of boiled new potatoes and a salad, with lemon juice and creme fraiche with chopped fresh dill for optional dipping.

Steaming somewhat muted the colors, the Copper River shifting to a rich clay color and the Columbia king turning just a shade lighter; the Atlantic salmon faded to beige. In flavor department, the Copper River was rich, meaty and dense with a clean, mild but concentrated fresh-salmon flavor. The Columbia River was more delicate, with subtle and delicious texture and flavor that made it our favorite, edging out the trendy Alaskan dish. (It should be noted, though, that the Columbia River was the desirable king salmon, while the Copper River was the tasty but somewhat less sought-after sockeye. A truly fair test would pit king against king or sockeye against sockeye, but I was limited by what I could get. In this particular horse, er, fish race, mark down Columbia Valley king as the winner for quality and value, although the Copper River earns a strong honorable mention despite its high-rent price.)

The Atlantic salmon was certainly palatable, and taken on its own, it probably wouldn't have seemed inferior. But in this comparative tasting, it couldn't compete: Flabby in texture and comparatively strong and "fishy" in flavor, it played in a different league. Even our fish-loving yellow cat Spike, turned loose on the leftovers, picked around the farm-raised fish to get at the wild stuff. Even at its single-digit price, the standard rule applies: "You get what you pay for."

WINE MATCH: I frequently preach the gospel of Pinot Noir with salmon as a delicious "red-wine-with-fish" exception to the usual rule. I outsmarted myself this time, though, by choosing a fairly good, if affordable, Burgundy, a 2000 Chorey-les-Beaune from Jean-Luc Dubois. Although an excellent Burgundy, it was quite tannic, and that's the one wine character that even salmon won't excuse. Next time I'll stick with a more fruity and accessible New World Pinot Noir ... or go back to a rich white, a textured Chardonnay or maybe an exotic Fiano or Greco di Tufo from Southern Italy.

ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES: I'm stepping close to the limits of my competence here, so I'll keep the opinion brief and refer you to online sources for more. The conventional wisdom, however, seems to be that, although overfishing has historically threatened some species of salmon, controlled wild (freerun) salmon fishing nowadays is relatively responsible, while loosely regulated factory-style salmon farming is more problematical, because of environmental issues such as waste disposal as well as uncertainty about species loss when farm varieties escape and interbreed with wild salmon. Habitat destruction and pollution have also threatened wild species in some regions.

Coincidentally, a lengthy cover story in U.S. News & World Report this week addresses many of these issues in readable detail. Thomas Hayden's story Fished out: It's not too late to rescue the oceans and keep seafood on our plates, is now online at

The New York Times also ran an excellent article on May 28 under the headline, "Farmed Salmon Looking Less Rosy," but I can't find it in their online archive. If any of you can track it down, let me know, and I'll post a link next week.

Excellent and seemingly objective advice about fishery and environmental issues is also available online from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch,
and the Seafood Choices Alliance,

Talk about these issues in our online forum:
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where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Copper River salmon, worth the hype?" To read the replies, and join in, point your browser to:

For a discussion about salmon and fishery environmental issues, click to "Any experts on salmon and threatened/endangered status?"
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Thursday, May 29, 2003
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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