Copper River outlook improves

Things are looking better than expected for Copper River kings.

Sportfishermen, personal-use dipnetters, subsistence fishermen and commercial fishermen are all out now on the Copper River drainage.

When the season began May 18, the forecast estimated that only about 29,000 kings would return to the river system, leaving about 5,000 for total harvestable surplus.

But early indicators from the commercial fishery showed larger takes, despite more conservative management measures such as restricting hours and closing certain areas. The low forecast also led the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to announce a preseason sportfishing closure for king salmon on the Copper River drainage and a two-fish king salmon limit for subsistence fishermen.

On June 3, though, the managers reevaluated the king run based on commercial takes and limited inriver information, and opened up the sportfisheries and rescinded the subsistence restriction.

As of the June 12 commercial fisheries opener, Copper River District fishermen had taken about 11,960 king salmon, according to ADFG’s inseason harvest summary.

The managers are getting toward the end of the king salmon run and so far have been relatively relieved that the sockeye return hasn’t been exceptionally large, said Jeremy Botz, the assistant area management biologist for the Division of Commercial Fisheries in Cordova.

“We’ll start to remove some restrictions here over the next couple of weeks as the chinook salmon run winds down and we’ll be focusing more on our delta wild sockeye and later-timed upriver sockeye salmon,” he said. “The schedule might become a little more liberal here in the next few weeks.”

In the past several years, the managers have been dealing with exceptionally large sockeye returns on the Copper River, significantly surpassing the river system’s escapement goal.

However, this year, the sockeye run was projected to be weaker than usual, and so far it looks like the run is coming in closer to the forecast than the kings. As of June 13, about 351,360 sockeye had passed Fish and Game’s sonar at Miles Lake, and Copper River District commercial fishermen had taken a total of 328,996 sockeye, according to ADFG data.

The preseason forecast was for a run of about 1.5 million sockeye.

The sockeye salmon escapement upriver is slightly ahead of what it usually is this time of year, according to the commercial fishing recorded announcement for the Copper River District.

“I think the sockeye salmon escapement in the river is the really conservative fishing restrictions we’ve been prosecuting this year,” Botz said. “It just happens that that’s what this sockeye run can sustain anyway. It just ended up pairing fairly well.”

Because there is little inseason data available on king salmon, ADFG biologists will gather data from the commercial fishery and from a mark-recapture project near Eyak and perform a post-season assessment of the king salmon run to determine the final escapement.

Updated: 
06/15/2017 - 2:16pm

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