If you’ve bought wild salmon from your local supermarket and had a less than stellar experience—a strong fishy taste, meat that was falling apart, or lackluster color—it was likely a freshness issue and not the fish itself. Kyle Lee, an Asian American fisherman from Cordova, Alaska, and the founder of Alaskan Salmon Company, is offering consumers another option.
Alaskan Salmon Company is on a mission to “provide the most exclusive wild caught salmon from the Copper River” to their consumers, from Michelin starred restaurants to home cooks. While a typical supply chain for wild salmon may include between seven to 10 middlemen (plus processing overseas and reimporting back to the United States), their salmon is flash-frozen and sent to the customer straight from the source with no third party distributors or middlemen.
The spirit of entrepreneurship was something Lee learned at a young age as the son of Taiwanese immigrants who opened a restaurant in Alaska. “I essentially grew up in the restaurant,” Lee said. “I’d be on my mom’s back while she was making egg rolls or running the cash register.” During his college years, Lee spent summers working on a friend’s commercial fishing boat and found that he enjoyed the lifestyle, especially the breathtaking natural surroundings of the areas they fished in.
The spark that eventually led to Lee founding a fishing company came when he saw the stark difference between the fish he had in his freezer from his fishing trips and what was available at the grocery store in his Colorado college town. “I started to wonder what the disconnect was and what happened,” Lee said. “We were catching these beautiful fish in Alaska, but at the supermarket the salmon had gaping meat and a lackluster color.”
Commercial fishing wasn’t the career path Lee’s parents envisioned for him—he got a degree in finance and accounting—however a serendipitous opportunity gave Lee the courage to dive headfirst into his passion. A retiring fisherman was selling his boat and permit to fish in Alaska’s 300-mile Copper River, a highly coveted fishing spot where fishing rights have to be purchased or inherited. The king and sockeye salmon caught here have an exceptionally difficult migratory route (arguably the hardest in the world), and the challenging uphill climb means that the fish need to pack on more fat to make the journey. As a result, the salmon is packed with healthy Omega−3 fatty acids. To Lee, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity; the corporate world could wait. He got a loan to purchase the boat and permit and the rest, as they say, is history.
Fast forward to five years in the fishing business and Lee has found success in selling his salmon to restaurants and fish markets. Each year, the Alaskan Salmon Company sold out its inventory of seasonal catches. Then the pandemic hit. Direct-to-consumer had been something Lee was working towards for years, but the loss of the company’s restaurant clients in 2020 was the catalyst that finally made it a reality. In late April 2021, Alaskan Salmon Company launched their DTC website, which allowed consumers to buy the same high-quality, sustainably caught fish directly from Copper River fishermen for the first time. Customers could buy a maximum of two 5-pound boxes of Copper River sockeye salmon or Copper River king salmon on a first come, first served basis. “The website blew up, and within the first month we had 4,000 people on our waitlist,” Lee said.
Looking to the future of the company, Lee has two key initiatives in mind: education and expanding their offerings. “Now that we have a pretty large following and a voice, I really want to focus on education,” he said. His goal is to educate consumers on what wild salmon is, what it has to offer, the pros and cons, and so forth. “That way, they can take that information and make the best decision for themselves about whether to consume wild salmon, farmed salmon or both.” On the Alaskan Salmon Company website, you’ll find articles explaining the difference between wild-caught and farm-raised salmon (including the environmental impact, taste and health benefits) and what Copper River salmon is and why it’s so expensive. On the business side of things, Lee hopes to expand their fishing operation beyond salmon and the summer months—offering halibut and black cod in the fall, and eventually a full slew of Alaskan products.