Copper River crash will cost commercial fishermen millions

  • Annual first fish celebrations for the Copper River salmon season opening were shortlived in 2018 as near-record low returns of sockeye have shut down commercial fishing since three periods in mid-May, and sport and dipnet fishing as of June 13. Just less than 26,000 sockeyes have been harvested after state biologists had expected more than 1 million to be caught this year. (AJOC Illustration)

Copper River sockeye fishermen are facing historic low returns this year, prompting some commercial fisherman to target other species elsewhere in Prince William Sound, and leaving others waiting onshore in what is usually a profitable fishery to the tune of $15 million or more in ex-vessel value.

Through mid-June, the commercial Copper River District drift gillnet fishery had landed just less than 26,000 sockeye salmon and a little more than 7,000 kings during three mid-May fishing periods. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game had expected a harvest this summer of nearly 1 million sockeye in the district, and about 13,000 kings. As the harvest stands now, it’s the second-lowest in the past 50 years.

The Copper River fish typically fetch a premium price as the first of the season, and this year was no exception, with prices as high as $75 per pound for kings at the Pike’s Place market in Seattle after the May 17 season-opening period.

But the district hasn’t re-opened after the first three periods because the sockeye returns are so poor, so the final value is likely to be far lower than the $20 million-plus the fishery often nets.

ADFG Area Management Biologist Jeremy Botz said it would take a significant improvement for the fishery to re-open.

“(There’s) not anything to support a commercial fishery at this time,” he said on June 19.

Botz said there’s a chance the commercial fishery could re-open if the numbers improved, but that wasn’t looking likely in the near-term. Typically, the sockeye fishery winds down in late July. Coho management begins Aug. 15, and Botz said that should be unaffected by the slow sockeye run.

Before the season began, the ADFG forecast noted that the wild sockeye and king returns to Copper River were expected to be smaller than in years past, with a total sockeye run predicted to come in about 16 percent below the 10-year average, and a chinook run estimated at 4 percent below the average.

Through June 19, the sonar counter that is about 70 miles downstream of the popular Chitna dipnet fishery had counted just above 243,000 fish, with slow daily counts. The in-river goal past the sonar this year is 644,000 to 1.03 million salmon. The low end of the escapement goal is 360,000 sockeyes.

Botz said it is still possible to meet that goal, but it will depend how the rest of the run shapes up. The count so far is about the eighth-lowest on record, Botz said.

The department also does an aerial survey count on the Copper River Delta, which was well below the anticipated range, too. Re-opening the fishery would depend both on the aerial survey numbers, and the sonar count, Botz said.

The low numbers have meant restrictions for the in-river fisheries too, not just the commercial side. The department has closed the popular personal use fishery at Chitna, as well as sportfishing in-river. The run does look close enough to meeting its escapement goals that the department has offered some subsistence fishing time, Botz noted.

Ocean conditions impacting size, run strength

The fish that are showing up also aren’t as big as they used to be.

“Overall, the average weight has continued to remain down,” Botz said.

That was seen in the first few commercial openings, and continues to be the case for the subsistence fishery, he said.

Botz said this is about the fourth year in a row of small sockeye in the Copper River. In 2015 and 2016, the average weight was down to about 5 pounds. Last year, it increased slightly, to 5.5 pounds, still far smaller than the typical size, which is typically more than 6 pounds.

Botz said there are several theories about what is causing the smaller fish, which have also been seen in other parts of the state in the last few years, but some things are certain.

“The smaller size-at-age, there’s definitely some competition or shortage of food out at the ocean,” he said.

It’s hard to say exactly what causes poor fish runs, but Botz said it’s likely that ocean conditions play a role, including warmer ocean temperatures caused by the “Blob” of warm water that moved into the Gulf of Alaska in 2015 and 2016.

He noted that although there were some large escapements in the years producing the current sockeye run, the large number of stocks in the Copper River system typically mitigate any big impact coming from a large escapement.

“Overall, the bigger driver is out in the ocean,” Botz said.

Small run, lean earnings

The Copper River isn’t the only struggling fishery in Alaska this summer. By mid-June, the returns in Kodiak were weak as well, and several king fisheries were shut down around the state including the early run of Kenai king salmon.

Staff for Gov. Bill Walker did not respond to a question about whether he was likely to seek a disaster declaration for the Copper River fishery, or any other shortcomings in the state. More often, that happens after the season is over.

The high Copper River prices could help mitigate some of the economic impact of the shutdown, but not all.

Copper River drifters typically harvest 60 to 70 percent of total Prince William Sound drift-harvest of sockeye each year, and take home a slightly larger proportion of the drift sockeye fishery’s ex-vessel value, because the Copper River and Bering districts typically fetch a better price per pound than the rest of the sockeye caught by PWS drifters.

In 2016, they landed 1.1 million sockeye out of a total 1.6 million for all Prince William Sound drift fisheries, worth about $13.3 million at the average price for that district of $2.30 per pound.

That was then considered a relatively lean year for the fishery, but 2018 is unlikely to match it.

Botz said many fisherman are also fishing elsewhere in Prince William Sound since they can’t fish the Copper River district, the western Prince William Sound enhanced chum and sockeye fisheries are seeing the biggest uptick in effort.

“Most folks, even folks that don’t typically go over to the westside, are over there this year,” he said, noting that just a few “die-hard” Copper River drifters are waiting in Cordova to see if their favorite fishery re-opens.

But that won’t completely offset the losses fishermen face from the slow year in what Botz said is “normally a reliable fishery.”

The only comparable years were 1979, when the fishery shut down after just a few periods, and 1980 when it was pre-emptively closed.

“Now it’s kinda wait and see if we see some improvements here,” Botz said in June.

Updated: 
06/20/2018 - 10:47am

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