This is a developing story
No one seems to have any idea what sort of astronomical price a rare and iconic Copper River king salmon from Alaska might demand when the commercial fishing season opens in about a week – if there are any fish to be sold.
The Alaska Board of Fisheries is facing an emergency petition to ban the sale of the big fish in the name of conservation. Alaska subsistence fishermen who are supposed to have a fishing priority but have already been told they will be restricted to a limit of two kings each for the entire season are talking about the possibility of a lawsuit if the state allows the commercial king fishery to open.
And even if the start of the fishery proceeds as scheduled on May 18, the opening day catch is expected to be no more than a few hundred fish, if that, given that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has already ordered the closure of fishing areas where most kings are caught.
All of this makes the mood in the tiny, isolated fishing port of Cordova tense.
“Young guys in debt are panicking,” long-time fisherman Jerry McCune said Wednesday. “They’ve cut off the whole inside to fishing and moved everyone offshore. You don’t catch that many kings offshore.”
McCune said he caught two in those waters last year during a season that ran from mid-May into July.
Alaska’s biggest deal
Copper River kings usually highlight the opening of commercial summer, salmon netting in the 49th state. The fish have traditionally taken the starring role in a national culinary celebration with Alaska Airlines jets dispersing the big fish fresh from Cordova to upscale restaurants across the country.
Seafood buyers in Seattle last year were clamoring “to spend upwards of $50 per pound for the coveted catch,” reported KIRO radio, one of a variety of Seattle media outlets devoting news coverage to the arrival of the first of the fish there.
The year before the fish warranted a 23-photo spread on the webpages of USA Today, the national newspaper. The Atlantic magazine in 2010 devoted a whole story to “How Copper River Salmon Got So Famous.”
“In Seattle, New York, Tokyo and Los Angeles,” Timothy Egan of the New York Times wrote of one opener, “anxious chefs clicked onto websites and called fishermen on cell phones. Forget the (rotten) weather. The chefs wanted to know how the fish looked. Then, ‘Bulletin! Bulletin! Six kings landed!’ flashed on computer screens.”
That was then and now?
Biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are forecasting the worst run of kings – or Chinooks, as they are otherwise known – in 32 years. The sport fishery for kings in the Copper River basin has already been ordered closed for the year. And along with the commercial fishery facing severe area restrictions to try and limit their catch to more plentiful sockeye salmon and minimize the king catch, there is the possibility the sale of kings will be banned by the time the season opens to provide an even greater incentive for fishermen to avoid the fish.
The Board of Fisheries meets on the 17th to consider the petition from the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee to eliminate the commercial king fishery.
Alaska’s subsistence tangle
Fairbanks committee chairman Virgil Umpenhour, a former member of the Fish Board, said he doesn’t see where the state has much choice but to shut down the king fishery. It is what the board did on the Yukon River to stop commercial fisheries from catching kings destined for subsistence nets upstream. It is what the state did on the Kuskokwim River to stop commercial fisheries from catching kings destined for subsistence nets upstream.
The board, he said, needs to treat Copper River subsistence fishermen “the same way we treat them on the Yukon River. This (situation) is exactly why we have federal management.”
The federal government took over management of subsistence fisheries in Alaska rivers in 1999 in the wake of an Alaska Supreme Court ruling that held that giving people special hunting and fishing privileges solely on the basis of residency violated equal access provisions in the Alaska Constitution.
Passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act in 1980 had granted “rural” Alaskans a priority on the killing of fish and wildlife. No other state has such a law. In the years following passage of ANILCA, the state and federal governments struggled with how to implement the federal standard.
The state tried a variety of schemes to comply with the law, but eventually concluded the only way to do so would be to amend the state constitution. That didn’t happen, and in 1990 the feds took over management of wildlife in an area larger than the size of Texas.
Not only national park lands, which are managed by the federal government everywhere, came under federal management but so, too, lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In all other states, wildlife on such lands is managed under state authority.
Fisheries were at that time left unchanged because of confusion as to who had authority over state waters. Most of the water in the state is technically under state control. The state owns the water outright, and it owns the land beneath the water in all streams and rivers judged “navigable.”
Enter Katie John
In 1984, Athabaskan elders Katie John from the small community of Mentasta and Doris Charles from the equally small village of Dot Lake asked the Board of Fish to open a subsistence salmon fishery at a deserted village site far up the Copper River. The board said no.
In 1987, the Native American Rights Funds filed suit demanding such a fishery under the terms of the state subsistence law. The Board responded by offering to grant the women a special permit with a limit of 1,000 fish. John and her attorneys thought the state requirements too restrictive and pushed to have the permit requirement eliminated.
They were in court with the state when the feds took over management of wildlife. Recognizing an opportunity, John’s lawyers filed a new lawsuit against the federal government seeking to broaden the definition of federal “public lands” to include waters. The suit dragged on in the courts for three years, but in 1994 U.S. District Court Judge Russell Holland ruled in John’s favor.
The state appealed to the federal Court of Appeals and lost. A request for the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case was denied.
“This is a great victory for American Indians and Alaska Natives,” Ada Deer, the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior said at the time. “Many of our people still depend on subsistence fishing and hunting as a means to provide food for their families. Subsistence living is a culturally based practice and I view it as a fundamental, aboriginal right.”
It would be another four years before the feds fully and finally stepped in, but since the year 2000, they have been actively involved in managing fish in Alaska, although generally acquiescing to state plans when resources are plentiful.
“Today, Alaska’s subsistence management ‘system’—if that is the proper term—is a complex melange that is managed by both the state and federal governments,” a National Park Service history of the issue notes. “Subsistence decisions are made by the state game and fish boards and by the Federal Subsistence Board, and serving these boards in an advisory capacity are various local advisory committees, subsistence resource commissions, regional advisory councils, along with other groups and agencies. Despite the Federal Subsistence Board’s titular leadership, a seeming tyranny of democracy prevails, in which both rural and urban Alaskans of all stripes have a voice, and rural groups additionally benefit through various so-called Section 809 agreements through which various data collection, project management and monitoring projects are conducted.”
On the Copper River, everything was fine when there were enough kings to provide an income for roughly 500 commercial drift-net permit holders working out of Cordova and still allow the subsistence fishery upstream to operate freely.
And now, with the state trying to manipulate the system to maintain catch in the commercial fishery at a time when kings are in short supply, “we’re right back in the same place we were 30 years ago,” Umpenhour said.
“What’s ridiculous in all this fish and wildlife management, we don’t learn a damn thing from history.
“I think that Ahtna (the regional Native corporation for the Copper River area) will probably take legal action if the board doesn’t act. This is what the Katie John decision was all about.”
Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, a commercial fisherman for most of his life, has recommended the board ignore the Fairbanks petition.
“This letter is to formally notify you pursuant to AS 44.62.230, that based on the information available to me I cannot conclude that an emergency under 5 AAC 96.625(f) exists and I deny the emergency petition,” he wrote the Fairbanks committee on May 4, adding:
“This is my final decision on your emergency petition. The board has been notified of my decision and two members of the board may call a special meeting to discuss the petition if they choose to do so.”
Two members did, according to Umphenour. Whether the board has the votes to act in support of the petition will be decided at that meeting. Knowledgeable observers doubt the votes are there on a board dominated by commercial fishing interests.
Federal officials have so far gone along with the state decision and restricted the federal subsistence fishery to two kings, but that restriction can be appealed to the Federal Subsistence board. The situation is complicated.
The Fairbanks petition goes into it in great detail and predicts a probable move of some fishermen from the state subsistence program to the federal subsistence program to gain more freedom from onerous state regulations.
“The (state) subsistence fishwheels are further restricted to ‘closely attended’ status,” the petition notes. “The department expects 75 to 100 (or) more local fishermen who qualify will switch from the state permit to avoid the restrictions. Avoiding the ‘closely attended’ requirement will drive this change. Traditionally fishwheels here run through the night and are required to have empty catch boxes every 10 hours.”
The state is demanding fishwheel operators post a continuous, standing watch on their wheels and immediately release any king they seen spun up out of the muddy Copper.
Serious conservation concern
But the Fairbanks board’s big concern is not with the operation of the fishery but with the potential kings will be overharvested.
The forecast return is 29,000 of the big fish. The minimum spawning goal is 24,000, “which leaves 5,000 in the harvestable surplus,” the petition says.
“The commercial harvest goal is 3,500. Which leaves 1,500 for subsistence. The five-year average harvest for (Cordova) home pack is 317 and the five year average for the Glennallen (subsistence) Subdistrict is 2,486. The combination subsistence harvest is (thus) 2,803.
“The department hopes to reduce the subsistence harvest by restricting each (subsistence) permit to two kings. The five-year year average for state permits is 1,726 and they harvested 1,849 kings per year – well under the two-fish per permit limit. Restricting upriver subsistence will most likely be a ‘feel good’ management action not likely to reduce the average harvest.”
The Fairbanks math pushes the number of spawners more than 1,000 fish under the minimum goal, which some believe is already too low. The petition calls the state’s existing plan “very high risk” even though the state has already closed all king salmon sport fisheries in the Copper River basin, a serious blow to local tourism businesses, and prohibited personal-use dipnet fishermen from keeping kings once their season opens in June.
State Director of Commercial Fisheries Scott Kelley did not return phone calls asking for information. Glenn Haight, the director of the state Board of Fisheries, did not return phone calls asking for information.
McCune, the commercial fishermen, said the situation is a mess. He’s hoping the fish defy the scientists and come back in much greater numbers than are predicted, but he’s not really expecting that.
“The pattern has changed,” he said. “It’s really warmed up. I’ve been here for 50 some years. The fish are smaller (now); they’re running deeper.”
Like many others, he expects shifts in the ocean environment are playing a role. Chinook runs have been weak all over the state for several years. But no one knows exactly why. The North Pacific Ocean covers an area the size of a continent, and most of what happens there happens unseen beneath the seas.
That makes it hard to pinpoint what might be going on at sea to diminish king salmon runs.
All anyone knows is that the fish aren’t returning the way they used to and that has big implications for fishermen of all sorts and for fish buyers. If the Cordova fishery catches kings this year, there won’t be many.
But given there aren’t many, Cordova fishermen could well benefit from huge, huge prices. With the thousands of kings caught last year fetching more than $50 a pound; $100 a pound for hundreds of kings this year might not be impossible.
If there are fish to sell.