RETAILERS JUMP TO GET WILD SALMON

TACOMA, Wash. -- The re-opening of Alaska's Taku River for commercial fishing after more than 25 years has given some retailers a head start on selling king salmon this season.Industry sources think Alaska's highly touted Copper River king salmon that grabs the spotlight every spring may be rivaled this year by the catch from the lesser-known, Juneau-area Taku, which opened for the season two weeks

TACOMA, Wash. -- The re-opening of Alaska's Taku River for commercial fishing after more than 25 years has given some retailers a head start on selling king salmon this season.

Industry sources think Alaska's highly touted Copper River king salmon that grabs the spotlight every spring may be rivaled this year by the catch from the lesser-known, Juneau-area Taku, which opened for the season two weeks ahead of the Copper.

At Vashon Island Thriftway, Vashon Island, Wash., seafood manager Jeff Scovel made sure his customers knew the Taku River story by placing large, laminated signs at his service and self-service cases. The signs point out the Alaska Fish & Game Commission has opened the previously over-fished Taku for king salmon fishing for the first time since 1976. They also explain that exceptionally high fat content makes the fish flavorful. Scovel said he did a lot of research when he heard the Taku was opening.

"When Johnny's [Seafood, a Tacoma-based wholesaler/distributor and retailer] told me they would have king salmon from the Taku, I jumped on it," he said. "It's as good as Copper River. I bought three whole ones. I always buy three or four kings at the first of the season just for the thrill of it, just because it's the start of the season."

In fact, retailers and their suppliers expected the river's opening and the additional supply of net-caught king salmon to at least bring the price of Copper River salmon down a little.

"These rivers opening up, like the Yukon last year, puts pressure on the Copper River phenomenon," said Kevin Stormans, co-owner of Ralph's Thriftway and Bayview Thriftway stores, Olympia, Wash. "Copper River salmon has taken on a life of its own. The name recognition is big and demand has been high, but supply and demand always has its effect."

Wholesalers and retailers told SN the catch from the Taku, where the season opened May 2, has yielded a high-quality salmon.

"Its quality is extremely close to that of Copper River," said Durell Herman, meat/seafood buyer at Larry's Markets, a six-unit, upscale retailer based in Kirkland, Wash. "A very good fish. The addition of more fisheries will even out the price of all salmon. You won't see such extremes as the price of Copper River now. Probably Taku River will even go lower." "It's a beautiful fish," said Gary Gerontis, president and co-owner of Johnny's Seafood here. "These are as good as Copper River, but the job is to educate customers."

To that end, Larry's stores have been conducting demos to get shoppers familiar with the fish. Managers have directed associates to talk up the Taku king fillets they're offering for sale.

"They tell customers how the longer the river, the more oil the fish stores up. That means great eating," Herman said.

Nevertheless, it seems the Taku salmon could benefit from more exposure. Stormans, who also is using signs to educate, said he was disappointed by lower-than-expected sales. Shoppers may be waiting for Copper River.

"There's all that marketing of Copper River," Stormans said. "The media, well-known chefs, restaurants -- they all have to come together in the perfect storm. Copper River is a great fish, but the marketing is a big factor."

In recent years, the hoopla over the Copper River king season's opening day, which was May 16, has pushed up demand and sent prices soaring. The bad press farm-raised salmon has received, too, has increased demand for wild salmon, sources said. The first catch of Copper River salmon can retail for up to $30 a pound.

By contrast, retail prices for Taku River fillets ranged from $15.99 to $22 a pound. Larry's Markets put Taku on ad for $13.99 a pound for one week. Then back to a retail of $15.99. Stormans' Thriftways were retailing fillets for $16.99.

Vashon Island Thriftway's Scovel displayed two whole fish at the rear of the service case and one row of fillets, overwrapped on black trays in self-service, with a retail of $18.99 a pound.

"This will be the prized fish as we go into the weekend [of May 13]," Scovel said. "But, of course, Copper River season opens on Monday, the 16th. Then all eyes will be on that for a few weeks. We will put the Taku fish on ad for Memorial Day Weekend."

Not all retailers got the orders of Taku king they had anticipated, perhaps due to inadequate supply.

"We didn't get Taku River this year, but we're looking forward to Copper River," said Randy Yokum, seafood manager at Rudy's Newport Market, Bend, Ore. "We always do well with that."