2021 Copper River fishery underway with record prices

  • Fishermen deliver Copper River salmon to the F/V Kelly Ann, tendering for Camtu’s Alaska Wild Seafoods, before heading back to Cordova on May 20. Catches have picked up from a slow start and Peter Pan Seafoods paid record prices to fishermen after the season’s second open period. (Photo/Emily Mesner/Anchorage Daily News)

Update:

State managers have decided to close the Copper River drift fishery for the 12-hour Thursday fishing period to allow more sockeye into the river, according to an advisory issued late Tuesday.

Through Tuesday, just 6,298 sockeye had been enumerated at the Miles Lake sonar site upriver from the fishery while approximately 40,000 fish should've passed the sonar so far to meet the Department of Fish and Game's inriver run goal, the advisory states.

ADFG Commercial Management Biologist Jeremy Botz noted that remaining ice flows in the river have deployment of the sonar equipment on the south bank of Miles Lake, which based on historical counts means only about half of the sockeye that have moved passed the sonar site have been counted. Botz added that he believes the sockeye are moving slowly through the lower river, which has abnormally low and cold flows, but said the low counts still necessitate closing the period. He's hopeful fishing can resume on a normal schedule with the 12-hour opener scheduled for Memorial Day.

"We're still somewhere in that middle ground," between a potentially late and poor run, he said.

Fishermen harvested 32,727 sockeye during the Monday opener, a drastic improvement over the first two periods; however, approximatley 56,000 fish should've been harvested based on historial data for the period, according to the closure advisory.

Original story:

The famed Copper River salmon fishery appears to be improving after a slow start and harvesters are mostly enjoying sky-high prices for their catch.

Peter Pan Seafoods announced following the second 12-hour Copper River drift gillnet opener of the year that the company would be paying $19.60 per pound for kings and $12.60 per pound for sockeye; those prices that are several fold greater than historical averages.

That compares to early season ground prices in the $3 to $4 per pound range for sockeye and just more than $6 per pound for Copper River kings last year when the onset of the pandemic closed many restaurants that drive much of the demand for salmon from the early season fishery.

Peter Pan Vice President Jon Hickman said in a statement that to his recollection those are the highest prices any processor has paid for Copper River salmon.

Those prices were reflected in retail offerings as well. Anchorage’s 10th and M Seafoods was selling Copper River sockeye for $54.95 per pound and kings for $69.95 per pound May 25. Seattle’s renowned Pike Place Market at the same time was advertising sockeye fillets for $59.99 per pound and fresh Copper River king for $79.98 per pound.

While prices in the Copper River fishery are strong, the fishing is trying to catch up.

Copper River drifters harvested 5,188 kings and 52,729 sockeye in the first three openings of the fishery, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game figures.

The king catch was fairly steady with between 1,160 and 2,068 fish caught in each of the three 12-hour openers but most of the sockeye — 32,727 of them — were caught May 24.

The king harvest through three periods has already nearly matched last year when 5,850 big salmon were caught and the sockeye harvest is more than halfway there as well.

A very poor Copper River sockeye return last year resulted in a harvest of just 98,294 fish when recent harvests had averaged more than 1.2 million sockeye, according to ADFG records. Fishing was closed for much of June due to poor catches in the May openers and low in-river sonar sockeye counts. Last year’s Copper River sockeye run totaled just 630,000 fish based on combined escapement and harvest data.

This year, the department’s forecast calls for a total run of just more than 1.3 million sockeye with an allowable harvest of approximately 672,000 fish. The 2021 Copper River king forecast of 37,000 fish, if accurate, would allow for an all-user harvest of 13,000 kings to still meet the system-wide escapement objective.

Through May 24 managers had counted just 4,813 at the Miles Lake sonar just upriver from the fishery; however, ice in the lake prevented complete readings for the first few days of counts.

The Copper River sockeye escapement goal range is 360,000-750,000 fish for the prolonged run.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
05/26/2021 - 3:54pm