A fishing season that was to have seen the worst return of king salmon to Alaska’s Copper River since 1985 has opened with an unexpected bounty of the big fish.
Despite restrictions to limit the catch during the year’s first fishing period on Thursday, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is reporting a harvest of 1,880 kings – 500 more than were caught on opening day last year.
Fisheries biologist Bert Lewis admitted to being a little stunned at the size of the catch and more than a little concerned about what managers should do next.
“If we didn’t have that (29,000-fish) forecast, it would be an indication of a big run coming,” he said. The forecast, however, skews everything.
The spawning goal for the Copper is 24,000 kings, which leaves a potential harvest of only 5,000 fish.
Citing the dismal forecast, Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten over-rode a long-standing state policy that the Board of Fisheries and not the Department of Fish and Game allocates fish and earlier this year ordered all king salmon sport fisheries in the Copper drainage closed. He then banned personal-use dipnetters from keeping kings and restricted subsistence fishermen to an annual limit of two fish to preserve a king catch in the commercial fishery.
Cotten is a former commercial fishermen appointed to his job by Alaska Gov. Bill Walker. He has no experience managing fisheries.
The sport fish closure, which didn’t even allow for catch-and-release fishing, is expected to take a huge bite out of tourism businesses in the Copper River basin, a region with an already struggling economy.
“People still fish for the reds (sockeye salmon),” said area resident Gary Hay, “but when they come all the way from Europe or the states, they at least want a chance to try to catch a king.”
Pushed by angry Interior dipnetters cut out of the king fishery, the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee petitioned the Board to review Cotten’s action, but on a 4-3 vote it decided to leave the state agency in the business of allocation.
The move is precedent setting and certain to cause future political problems. Commercial fishermen represent a tiny minority of fishermen in the 49th state, but harvest more than 95 percent of all Alaska salmon. Over the years, anglers have regularly accused the Fish and Game Department of a commercial fishing bias, but the agency has always found cover behind the argument it does science and the Board does allocation.
Cotten’s action shattered that shield.
None of which is going to make the next decision any easier for a state agency that has announced it plans to hold this year’s total Copper River king catch to 5,000 fish.
“The department has allocated 4,000 to the commercial fleet and 1,000 to subsistence,” according to the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, a Seattle-based trade group.
With the Thursday catch of 1,880, the harvest during the season’s first, 12-hour opening went almost halfway to the 4,000-fish limit.
“The department’s in a pretty lousy position,” Lewis said.
That might be an understatement.
The department pushed back the opening day of the commercial season this year in hopes of reducing the season-long catch of kings and closed the inside waters thinking that would really cut down on the harvest. Some commercial fishermen were talking about a possible catch in the hundreds given the area closures.
But the Thursday catch in a 12-hour period was more than 300 fish above the catch of 1,523 on May 19 of last year in a 24-hour period.
Thinking the early catch numbers were an indicator of a decent run in 2016, Fish and Game followed that May 19 period with a 48-hour opening on May 23. Commercial fishermen then caught 2,913 kings – their best opening of the season.
Along the way, they paved the road to disaster.
King catches fell in the following weeks, but by the end of the season, the catch was close to 12,000, and the biologists were short about half of the fish needed for spawning. The failure to meet the spawning goal was embarrassing for fisheries managers and, worse, a threat to future returns.
Fisheries managers who dearly want to avoid repeating that mistake now find themselves in a difficult box. With the goal of limiting the season-long commercial harvest to 4,000 kings, a sizeable catch in the next opening would create a nightmarish predicament given that it is impossible to fish Copper River sockeye without catching some kings.
Another 12-hour opening with a king catch like Thursdays would put the king harvest within a few hundred fish of 4,000, and there’s no way the state can prosecute a Copper River sockeye fishery of any sort through the rest of this month and June without catching more than a few hundred kings as by-catch.
“It’s tough,” Lewis said.
What Lewis – not to mention every other commercial fishery biologist and most Alaskans – would like to believe is that the unexpected opening-day catch means the run forecast is wrong and the return is bigger than expected.
But fisheries managers everywhere have a bad history of driving fisheries into the ditch with that presumption. The problem is that while the presumption is often right; it is also sometimes wrong.
Over the years, commercial fishermen have repeatedly proven themselves better than biologists thought at finding the most valuable fish. Fleet efficiency has been the bane of modern fisheries management.
And Cordova fishermen at the moment have a big incentive to find kings.
Seattle media covering the “first coveted Copper River Salmon of the season” to arrive in the Pacific Northwest city fresh via Alaska Airlines were reporting astronomical prices for the fish.
“Copper River Salmon can go for $60 per pound or more,” KING5-TV said.
FishEx.com, an online supplier of premium seafood, was quoting a price of $79.95 with a waiting list: “1st come 1st served – Order Now.”
This was all great news for Cordova-based commercial fishermen, but state fisheries biologists were left studying catch reports and worrying mightily about what to do next. Lewis said the catch from the 500 boats in the Copper River gillnet fleet seemed to be spread evenly across the fishing district.
The catch in deeper waters offshore was also higher than expected, as was the sockeye catch of 36,000 fish. Plus there was an uptick in fish passing a sonar counter on the Copper River.
All of those things point toward stronger than expected returns to the Copper, but they are only signs.
“It’s too early to tell,” Lewis said. “It’s a challenge. It’s a lose-lose for us.”
The Department has put itself in a situation where there is no way to win.
If it sticks with the forecast of a weak run of kings and restricts the commercial fishery only to discover the run is stronger than expected, commercial fishermen in Cordova are going to be angry about not only missing out on kings, but being forced to watch what looks to be part of a better than expected sockeye run go past.
If the Department gambles that the forecast is wrong and the early indicators of abundance are right but loses the bet, the only option left to meet spawning goals is to close upstream subsistence fisheries along with the already closed sport and dipnet fisheries.
And subsistence fishermen are already angry about being put on limits when, by law, they are supposed to have a priority on the fish.
Hays called what has happened so far a “pre-emptive strike against subsistence users.” A ban on king catches in the subsistence fishery would likely lead to far worse accusations, but there might be no alternative if the commercial catch continues high.
Meanwhile, there is certain to be outrage if the state agency fails to meeting spawning goals this year after announcing long before the season it knew a weak run was coming.
The agency plans a 2 p.m. Saturday announcement on its next move. Stay tuned.