SEATTLE - The summer cookout season is heralded each spring by the arrival of the first Copper River salmon from Alaska.
An Alaska Air Cargo plane from Cordova touched down Friday morning and the pilots emerged with a 48-pound king salmon. They carried it down a red carpet and delivered it to three chefs for a ceremonial cook-off at Sea-Tac Airport.
The plane carried 24,100 pounds of salmon that were caught Thursday when the commercial gillnet season opened in Prince William Sound.
This is the first shipment of the prized salmon this year headed for restaurants and grocery stores, and the event is celebrated by Alaska Airlines as a rite of spring.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates the seasonal harvest at 1.6 million Copper River sockeyes, 22,000 kings and 280,000 pinks.
At least five more fish-filled Boeing 737s from Cordova were carrying Copper River salmon Friday to Seattle, Anchorage and throughout the United States, the airline said. The flights carry fresh fish from three Alaska seafood processors: Copper River Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods and Trident Seafoods.
Anchorage-area restaurants also were welcoming the salmon Friday at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Copper River Seafoods delivers a ceremonial first fish to seven downtown Anchorage restaurants.
The Sea-Tac cook-off was won by John Howie, owner of Seastar Restaurant & Raw Bar, who bested two other chefs again to defend his 2013 title.
Copper River salmon are highly prized for their oil content and flavor.
Last year, Copper River salmon accounted for 1 million pounds of the 24.5 million pounds of fresh Alaska seafood Alaska Airlines carried to the Lower 48 states.
"Making that happen within 24 hours after the fish is pulled from the water is no small feat," said Betsy Bacon, managing director of Alaska Air Cargo. "Hundreds of employees from across the state of Alaska, Seattle and beyond spend months getting ready for the busy summer fish season."