The Alaska Department of Fish and Game spun the cylinder on the Copper River commercial salmon fishery on Saturday hoping against hope the hammer falls on an empty cylinder.
The state agency issued a “salmon fishery news release” announcing it was sticking to its pre-season forecast of a 2017 Copper River king salmon return of 29,000, “the smallest since 1985 (that) continues a recent pattern of weak returns.” But the agency gave the Cordova-based gillnet fleet another 12-hour opening come Monday.
Fishermen caught almost 1,900 kings in the first 12-hour opening on Thursday. Only a total of 4,000 are in play. The state has defined an allowable harvest of 5,000, given a spawning goal of 24,000 minimum. But 1,000 of the 5,000 have been reserved for upriver subsistence fishermen.
Sport fisheries for kings have all been closed, and personal-use dipnetters have been banned from harvesting kings. Bruce Cain, the president of the Chamber of Commerce in the small community of Glennallen, said the sport closure is going to decimate some tourism businesses in the Copper River valley.
A widespot at the junction of the Glenn and Richardson Highways about 190 miles east of Anchorage, Glennallen is the regional hub of the upper Copper Basin valley despite being home to fewer than 1,000 residents.
Fish and Game has offered no explanation as to why or how it decided to cut out sport and personal-use fisheries and give 80 percent of the allowable king harvest to the commercial fishery and the other 20 percent to the subsistence fishery, which by both state and federal laws is supposed to have a priority on the fish.
Cain said that even a catch-and-release sport fishery, which according to state estimates on a catch-and-release mortality would have resulted in the death of less than a few hundred kings, would have been a big help for tourists businesses that generate a significant amount of their income from visitors wanting to hook into one of the iconic Alaska fish.
The Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee petitioned the Board of Fisheries to review the Fish and Game decision. Under Alaska law, the board is supposed to be the body that decides salmon allocations, but it voted 4 to 3 against considering the request.
Cain, who was at the Board meeting where the action was taken, said he was baffled. He believes, after studying past returns, that the state’s estimate is badly off, and he wanted the Board to discuss that possibility given the broad range of mishits on forecasts in recent years.
State records show the 2016 king forecast off by 54 percent low. The year before, it was 58 percent high. In 2014, it was 43 percent low. It came close in 2013 when it was only 7 percent low.
A return that comes in below the forecast this year could spell disaster. The best case scenario would be that Cain is right and the forecast erred low as in 2015. That year, 35,500 kings were expected, but 56,174 came back.
The unreliability of the forecast and the realities of the market put Cordova fishermen in a difficult position.
Collectively, it is in their best interest to catch as few kings as they can because it is possible, albeit remotely so, that if king catches continue as high as in the first opening of the commercial season, state biologists could be required to close or seriously restrict the Copper River gillnet fishery to protect the big fish.
They could have little choice because the gillnet fishery is indiscriminate. There is no way to catch sockeye salmon without catching a few kings.
If a lack of kings forced a full-on closure, Cordova fishermen could miss out on hundreds of thousands of sockeye salmon worth upwards of $10 million.
But in the short-term, it is individually in each Copper River fishermen’s interest to catch as many kings as possible because, in a time of shortage, the fish are selling at astronomical prices.
These dueling interests define the classic “tragedy of the commons,” an economic theory that outlines a situation wherein a shared resource is decimated by people operating in their own self-interest even though they are aware such behavior runs counter to the common good.
Of course, some fishermen can rationalize the issue away here in the belief that the state estimate of king returns might be wrong. And they might be right; this has happened.
At this point, too, there just isn’t enough data to say for sure what will transpire. A sonar counter on the Copper River upstream from Cordova had counted only 3,460 salmon as of Friday. The count was unusually low; there were 26,485 fish past the counter by the same date last year.
But there have been low counts in the past. There weren’t that many more fish past the sonar by May 19, 2011, and almost 1 million sockeye still managed to escape commercial fishermen and make it into the river.
Only time will tell the full story this year.