Every year Alaska's Copper River salmon fishing season kicks off with the first fresh salmon greeted as royalty in Seattle as it disembarks from Alaska Airlines' "Salmon Thirty Salmon" plane.
But with a locked-down Seattle, where restaurants are struggling to even stay open for takeout, uncertainty surrounds exactly how this year's event will proceed.
Cailee Olson, media relations manager for Alaska Airlines, told IntraFish the company is still working on a May 15 arrival event for the much-anticipated fish, but did not reveal the details of how it will differ from previous openers.
"We are planning to do something – it will be modified, but at minimum will take place at the [Seattle-Tacoma International] airport," she said.
There have been some discussions of hosting the event at additional locations, Olson said, but declined to provide further details.
Coronavirus trumps event strategy
Christa Hoover, executive director of Copper River Marketing Association, told IntraFish coronavirus concerns have upended the traditional planning that would otherwise be taking place this time of year.
"We've all been focused on the public health crisis so there has been little communication in regards to public marketing events," she said.
For certain, some activities will be postponed or modified, Hoover said, given rules on gatherings, social distancing and the closure of restaurants.
"We look forward to future seasons when these types of immersive events will be scheduled again," she said.
The marketing association is still planning on outreach programs that were scheduled before the coronavirus pandemic, Hoover said, but will not be conducting its in-season familiarity tours in Cordova and on Prince William Sound.
Chefs and restaurants around the country have traditionally competed to be the first to get their hands on the coveted salmon, which in previous years have been bid up to as much as $1,000 (€914.99) per fish.
But this year, Seattle family restaurants such as Anthony's Restaurants -- a key participant in past Copper River kick-off events -- are not even sure they will be in a position to serve customers.
"We are shut down. [Washington State Governor] Jay Inslee is in charge," Tim Ferleman, the restaurant's head seafood buyer, told IntraFish when asked about plans for Copper River this year.
Earlier this month Inslee's four-phase reopening plan stated restaurants are not allowed to offer dine-in service until at least June 1, the Seattle Times reported.
The same start date, but a new normal
With the lowest reported cases of COVID-19 in the United States, state officials and Cordova leaders have been coordinating with fishermen and stakeholders on how to safely allow in deckhands, captains, and processing workers from outside while mitigating the spread, the Anchorage Daily News reported.
John Weise, co-founder of Cordova's fishermen-owned Sixty North Seafoods, told IntraFish he is expecting fishing to proceed normally, for the most part, this year.
"I’m excited about the season, just like I'm excited about every season," he said. "Right now, salmon sales are up and I think a lot of sales are up for the industry."
Weise noted panic buying has helped lower the amount of leftover frozen salmon inventory, a positive development given more of this year's catch likely will go into frozen forms than in past years.
Jim Kostka, marketing director with Copper River Seafoods, also said the company is "open for business" and "gearing up" for the rapidly approaching opener.
"We plan on operating as business as usual, while modifying our business practices to meet local, state, and federal guidelines due to the pandemic," he told IntraFish.
Buyers such as Matthew Davis with Santa Monica Seafood are still not sure what prices will look like this year.
"Its very difficult to guess where pricing will be with all of the normal factors going out the window this year, but I would expect that we will see lower prices by about 30 percent or so in the $5-$7 (€4.60 -€6.40) range," he told IntraFish.
"The bulk of the fish from the opener typically goes to the West Coast, with Seattle and Los Angeles being major recipients. Those two markets are currently on a slower opening trajectory. However some new and alternative foodservice models are cropping up, so demand will still likely be there to some extent."
Withthe ultra-premium pricing for the fish and record-high unemployment across the country, exactly what demand there will be for Copper River's fresh salmon is anybody's guess.
Sixty North's Weise said the key to making the most out of this year's Copper River season is to adapt.
And even if the company isn't able to sell the same amount of fresh Copper River salmon into restaurants, the fish will find markets.
"If you can’t sell the fish that way, you need to change your business plan," he said. "People that run businesses don’t sit on their ass when it’s time to work."