Copper Failure


The commercial fishing season for Copper River salmon – the most coveted of Alaska fish – is shaping up as a disaster for the isolated fishing community of Cordova.

Prices paid to fishermen are now reported at $9.50 per pound for prime fish, but there just aren’t many fish to be had and most of them are small.

“Absolutely unprecedented” is how Stormy Haught, the area research biologists for Alaska Department of Fish and Game described the situation Wednesday.

Haught is well aware of the long, detailed history of Cooper River commercial fisheries because he’s been back through all the data looking for a parallel to this season that might indicate to fishery managers how they can expect the run to play out going forward.

He can find no similar season. A decade ago, Haught noted, the sockeye run started off similarly slow, but by the third period the catch was taking off.

Not this year. Fish and Game was projecting a Monday harvest of almost 100,000 sockeye. The actual catch came in at a fifth of that. State sampling put the average weight of the fish at a measly 4.7 pounds.

That’s near the lowest normal weight of a species that grows to 15 pounds. Haught said scientists expect ocean conditions are to blame.

About 60 percent of the fish coming back this year went to sea in 2015 and swam out into “The Blob,” a huge pool of warm water in the North Pacific Ocean. 

They may have “migrated into an inhospitable environment,” Haught said.

That thought sends shivers down the spines of state fisheries managers waiting for sockeyes – one of the state’s most valuable fish – to show in other areas. Juvenile sockeye from Cook Inlet, Kodiak and the Alaska Peninsula tend to share the same rearing areas as Copper River fish.

More restrictions

Because of the lack of sockeye, Cordova-based fishermen will spend a second, straight Thursday in port as Fish and Game tries to allow a greater number of sockeye to escape into the river.

The in-river sockeye count is lagging far behind expectations, as is the catch. After the first three openings of the season, the cumulative total catch is shy of 26,000, a little more than a quarter of what was expected to be caught on Monday alone.

Upriver, the situation is equally grim. The sonars that count fish entering the gray, glacial, slurry-like river have been lagging since first switched on back on May 10.

The first fish didn’t show for more than a week, and then there were but 27 of them. Low, cold water was blamed. The big hope was that the fish were gathering off the mouth of the river but delaying entry due to environmental conditions.

Increasingly, state fisheries biologist Mark Somerville said on Wednesday, “that’s kind of looking to be a pipe dream.”

The daily sonar count Tuesday was 6,390 – less than half the desired number of fish for the day. The cumulative count for the season, meanwhile, stood at 23,372, a mere 35 percent of the almost 68,000 fish managers would like to have in-river by now.

Glennallen-based Somerville oversees the popular, Chitina-area personal use dipnet fishery to which thousands of Alaska residents flock in early June in anticipation of those first, tasty salmon of summer and hopes of filling the freezer for the long winter that will come too soon.

The dipnet fishery was originally scheduled to open June 7 and run for 88 hours. The state on Tuesday issued an emergency order shortening the opening to 24 hours from noon June 9 to noon on June 10. 

Fishing is expected to be slow, and if returns continue at the present low rate, dipnetters can expect future fishing periods to be restricted as well.

Mediocre to worse

The return to the Copper this year was forecast to below average at 1.7 million fish, about 400,000 sockeye off the 10-year average of 2.1 million.  But the forecast range went as low as 1.3 million for the 24,000-square-mile Copper River basin

The river drains an Eastern Alaska wilderness about the size of Maine. It is home to more bears than people. But in the same it draws commercial fishermen from across the country to its mouth; dipnetters by the thousands from Anchorage and Fairbanks, the state’s two largest cities; and a smattering of anglers from around the globe to its clear water tributaries.

The sonar projections for how many fish should be in-river are based on the goal of seeing that a minimum of 644,000 sockeye escape the commercial fishery and get into the river to provide for spawning, subsistence, personal-use dipnetting and a tiny sport fishery that catches only about 15,000 sockeye per year.

The money fish for Copper River basin tourism businesses catering to anglers are king salmon, and the upside of the sockeye shortage is that less fishing time fro the commercial fleet means fewer kings caught in gillnets, and that means more kings in-river.

Commercial harvest of kings to this point would indicate the return is likely to be in line with the preseason forecast of 43,000, which is near the 10-year average for the river.

The biggest of the Pacific salmon, kings – or Chinook as they are more often known elsewhere – are the also the least common of the Pacific salmon.

The Copper River fishery opened last year amidst panic about a king salmon run failure. The sport fishery was shut down before the first kings showed, and personal-use dipnetters were prohibited from keeping any kings that ended up in their nets.

The fears eventually turned out to be unwarranted. A return forecast at 29,000 fish total numbered 45,000 to 48,000.  Commercial fishermen caught 13,000, but the 32,000 to 35,000 that made it into the river were way above the in-river goal of 24,000 minimum.

The sport fisheries were reopened. Dipnetters were allowed to keep some kings. And everyone went home happy.

Many are now hoping the 2018 sockeye run plays out like the 2017 king run, but the chances of that appear low.