Restaurant closures create uncertainty in the market for premium Copper River salmon

The sun sets over the harbor near downtown Cordova on Sunday, September 8, 2019. (Photo by Nat Herz / Alaska Public Media)

Alaska’s summer commercial salmon season kicks off this week, with the opening of the Copper River District.

Copper River salmon are prized fish, beloved by many, especially high-end restaurants on the West Coast. But restaurants may not be reliable buyers this year, as owners grapple with reduced business amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Lark is a fancy restaurant in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. A virtual tour of the business shows tables topped with white cloth and wine glasses, tall ceilings and trendy, hanging light fixtures.

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Like so many others in the restaurant industry, Lark’s owner and chef John Sundstrom has made big changes in order to adapt to dining room closures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. The fine dining restaurant has shifted to takeout.

John Sundstrom owns Lark, a fine dining restaurant in Seattle. (Zack Bent)

Normally, Sundstrom said this time of year he would be getting excited for Alaska’s Copper River salmon fishery to open.

“Seattle is known for seafood but what people don’t realize is that much of that probably comes from Alaska,” said Sundstrom.

Each year, Alaska Airlines marks the occasion with a big event at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. It includes a cooking competition, which Sundstrom won once.   

This year, Sundstrom said the chances of him buying Copper River salmon are pretty low.

“We don’t have anywhere to sell it,” Sundstrom said. “I could potentially bring it in for one of our menus but it’s also kind of a pretty big risk for me. Copper River tends to be about double the wholesale price to restaurants.”

For some perspective, Lark’s three-course to-go meals cost $49. A plate of Copper River salmon would typically sell for around $60.

“I’d have to be charging them more like $80 or $90 for a takeout meal, per person,” Sundstrom said, “and that’s hard for me to know if people would do it in this climate.”

Sundstrom said he’s taking it week by week, and not ruling Copper River salmon out completely.

Long-term decisions are hard to make right now, as uncertainty dominates the season.

“I mean…that’s the story for the Alaska seafood industry and the seafood industry in normal times, uncertainty,” said Garrett Evridge, an economist at the McDowell Group who focuses on fish.

Evridge said that normal uncertainty has greatly increased because of the pandemic. And, he’s hesitant to make any definitive predictions about what the market for Alaska seafood will look like this summer. But there are few things we know right now.

“For that seafood that is flowing into the food service market, restaurants, cafeterias, schools, that market is struggling,” said Evridge.

At the same time, more people are cooking at home, and stocking up on food at grocery stores. Everidge said retail sales have been strong.

“You know, in March, when everyone was buying toilet paper, they were also buying any seafood and any protein they could get a hold of,” Evridge said.

The fresh fish market, for fish that might go to a high-end restaurant like Lark, is particularly vulnerable right now. Early in the season, Evridge said Copper River salmon falls into that category. He said halibut prices are low right now, too. But, Evridge said it’s hard to predict what salmon prices will look like this summer.

“In a normal year, we don’t have a firm understanding of what prices will be,” Evridge said. “This year, with the added complications, we know even less.”

Fresh fish makes up just a small portion of the market for Alaska seafood. But it’s still an important component of business for fishermen like Mike Webber of Cordova-based Webber Wild Seafood. Webber has been involved in commercial fishing for more than 50 years. He gillnets on the Copper River and around Prince William Sound and markets the fish himself.

Webber is worried about sales this year.

“We are attempting to reach out to more individuals this year,” Webber said. “The restaurants have been a great, stable market for us, where they’re ordering fish once or twice a week from us. And they’re ordering fish for the winter as well. [I’m] definitely worried that our market is going to be impacted due to the virus.”  

Webber said the boat harbor is a little different in Cordova this year. As fishermen prepare their boats, they’re keeping to themselves. Masks are standard. Webber said he’s going all out on sanitation, and he runs a really small operation. Only two people touch the fish – Webber and his daughter.

“We are preparing ourselves for our furthest step of sanitation, sanitizing ourselves as well as our fish,” said Webber.

Considering the health of his community, Webber said he does have concerns about people coming to Cordova from out of town to work this summer, though he is confident in his own sanitation standards.

Cordova recently saw its first coronavirus case, when an Ocean Beauty cannery worker tested positive.

Evridge, at the McDowell Group, said amid all the uncertainty, this first big salmon fishery could provide some insight into what the market for Alaska seafood might look like this summer.

“Copper River will be one piece of the puzzle,” said Evridge. “But I imagine the entire season we will be looking for new information, and there will be ups and downs.”

Meanwhile, because of the pandemic, there won’t be any major fanfare when the first Copper River salmon arrives in Seattle this year. Alaska Airlines spokesman Tim Thompson said there may be a photo opportunity, but no cooking competition, and no big event.

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