Copper River counts keep commercial fishing closed

  • Fishing boats have been forced to stay tied up in the Cordova for weeks as counts for sockeye and king salmon have remained persistently less than normal. (File Photo/Mark Thiessen/AP)

There seems to be a decent chance commercial fishing in the Copper River District could resume soon despite a dismal start to the famed early season salmon fishery.

“I’m optimistic about having some opportunity at this point,” Cordova Area Management Biologist Jeremy Botz said June 16.

Botz attributed the more positive sentiment to the facts that recent counts of sockeye at the Miles Lake sonar in the Copper River have been greater than expected and the sockeye that move through the river in May and early June are not headed to the same spawning tributaries that the fish entering the Copper in late June and July are.

“We are definitely managing for a different set of stocks than we were before,” Botz said, noting there are more than 100 distinct sockeye stocks throughout the Copper drainage and nearby systems that contribute to the overall fishery.

The diversity of the stocks means managers are not trying to “make up” for fish that did not show up early in the run by restricting opportunity the rest of the season, Botz explained.

However, exactly when the commercial fishery might reopen is unclear as ADFG managers are still compiling run data from across the system.

As of June 15, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had counted 245,645 sockeye at the Miles Lake sonar and approximately 53,000 of those fish, or more than 20 percent of the total escapement, had been counted in the past four days.

While the counts are improving, the total escapement was still just less than half of 2019 when 502,000 sockeye had been counted as of June 15 — with much more commercial fishing time.

ADFG’s sustainable escapement goal range for the Copper River is 360,000 to 750,000 sockeye.

Fishing time in the Copper River District was halved from two 12-hour openers per week to one for multiple weeks following mid-May openers the first week of the season that cumulatively netted just 6,071 sockeye compared to managers’ expectations of harvests in the 25,000-fish range each day. More than 30,000 sockeye were harvested in each of the two following openers, but the typical early season peak in daily sockeye escapement counts never materialized, which has forced managers to close commercial fishing since June 1.

Overall, 71,370 sockeye have been harvested so far this year from the Copper River District, about 10 percent of the overall preseason forecast of a 771,000-fish harvest and a total run of about 1.5 million fish.

The Copper River District fleet harvested approximately 1.2 million sockeye last year.

The Copper River king salmon harvest has also been lower than expected with 5,751 fish caught over the four openers.

The lack of a significant restaurant market this year has also depressed ground prices for Copper River salmon, which traditionally fetch high prices in-part because it is the first large-scale Alaska salmon fishery of the year, based on reports from Botz and other observers.

Prices for during the early openers were in the $3.50 per pound range for sockeye and approximately $6.50 per pound for king salmon. The price for kings was about $10 per pound last year.

As for some of the other Prince William Sound gillnet fisheries, Botz called it a “mixed bag” of early results.

Through June 15 nearly 5,000 sockeye and 42,000 chum had been harvested at the Coghill River and another 41,000 had been caught in the Eshamy-Main Bay District, according to ADFG figures.

According to all-gear harvest data compiled by the research firm McDowell Group for the Alaska Seafood Marketing institute the overall Prince William Sound sockeye harvest — including the Copper River District — was off 82 percent from last year with approximately 114,000 fish caught through June 14, compared to a harvest of 646,000 sockeye by the same date a year ago.

The Prince William Sound chum harvest of 221,000 fish was off 14 percent from 2019 as of June 14 as well, according to the ASMI data.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

06/17/2020 - 9:08am