Copper River salmon fishery starts slow but sees potential to ramp up
The first salmon fishery of Alaska’s season has started off with low sonar counts and fairly conservative management, but it’s beginning to pick up steam as the summer gets underway.
The Copper River sockeye and king salmon fishery is the first each summer, kicking off around the third week of May. Because of that, the fishermen usually land a higher price per pound both for sockeye and kings. This year, the run for the Copper is predicted to be around or below average, and like elsewhere, the kings are scarcer than in past decades.
This year is also seeing the sockeye run show up later than usual. Last weekend saw daily numbers increasing passing the Miles Lake sonar on the Copper River, reaching just shy of 39,000 sockeye Sunday, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. That’s the highest daily count yet and puts the total count at about 153,000, ahead of the count at the same time in the last two years.
Jeremy Botz, the commercial fisheries management biologist for finfish in the Copper River, said the managers were expecting the run to be several days late, so this isn’t a surprise. The Miles Lake sonar is far upriver from the delta, too, taking fish anywhere from three weeks to a month to reach, so the counts are somewhat delayed from what is happening in the commercial fishery at the mouth.
However, the managers have been limiting commercial fishing opportunity until those counts come up.
“(We’ve just had) one period a week for the last couple of weeks,” Botz said. “We did two the first week. Historically, that’s pretty conservative.”
The cold spring led to lower water temperatures and higher icepack in the Copper River later than usual. That delayed Fish and Game a little in deploying one of the sonars to count sockeye, though Botz said both are now working and the models the biologists use account for that shortfall.
Fishermen understand the reasoning behind that and are following the data as it comes in, said Jess Rude, the executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United.
“Our shared hope is always for a healthy run of sockeye,” she said. “Area E Fishermen are small business owners and closures impact them and our community greatly, but the long-term goal is maintaining a sustainable resource we can continue to fish into the future.”
However, now that counts are going up, fishery effort and harvest may as well. As of Monday, 178,328 sockeye have been harvested in the Copper River district, with another fishing period ongoing that day. The managers also announced that the Chitina personal use dipnet fishery, one of the most popular in the state, would open from June 11-12 for 24 hours of fishing time.
The prices have come down since the beginning of the season as more supply comes in. When the first fish were landed, some high-end retailers were offering kings for more than $100 per pound. Now, Copper River Seafoods is offering wild sockeye for $45.99 per pound and kings for $69.99. Pike’s Place online market is offering wild Copper River sockeye for $29.99 per pound and king for $79.95 per pound as of Monday.
While the managers have good sonar data regarding sockeye, king salmon don’t have an official working sonar. There is a pilot project to enumerate kings funded by several industry organizations in partnership with Fish and Game, but it’s only a few years in, and the biologists want a full king salmon life cycle’s worth of data before they can decide whether to use it. Botz said they’re working on that and have been running the project since 2018, but can’t use the data to enumerate kings yet.
As of Monday, Copper River fishermen have harvested 8,492 king salmon, according to Fish and Game. The run is predicted to be a little bit below average this year, with a projected return of between 23,000 and 58,000 fish.
That cold spring that led to the chillier waters and late snowpack turned quickly into an early warm spell across Southcentral Alaska. Temperatures soared and reached the high 70s across much of the gulf coast. This week has brought clouds, rain, and some relief from soaring temperatures, but with the summer just beginning, temperatures could climb again.
Three years ago, Prince William Sound saw one of its hottest and driest summers on record, leading to water shortages and above-average water temperatures in both the Sound and in some of the shallower, shorter stream systems. Salmon reportedly delayed going upstream, waiting for cooler water, and die-offs were noted in some systems, though Botz said they didn’t seem to have a major impact on the 2019 pink salmon brood year that returned last year. Though the area is headed into the summer after a heavy snow year, an extended hot and dry periods like that could see the return of those conditions.
“All that snowpack is sort of like a savings account,” he said. “I was really optimistic about having lots of potential reserve snowpack throughout the summer in the Sound, but with this stretch of weather, if we have a dry summer, we could (see some difficulty with the short systems).”
Elsewhere in Alaska, salmon fishermen are gearing up or just starting to hit the water. Kodiak is scheduled to have openers in a variety of areas, including sections of the Alitak and Afognak districts, starting Thursday; in Upper Cook Inlet, the northern district fishermen are landing sockeye and some kings, though in small numbers—less than 2,000 kings so far, and 257 kings. Lower Cook Inlet is scheduled to open next week.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected].