Fisheries biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are today wrestling with a major dilemma.
Months ago, long-time Cordova biologist Steve Moffitt forecast a frighteningly low return of king salmon to the Copper River, one of the 49th state’s most prized fisheries. Then he retired and left the time bomb ticking in the office of his successors.
It is now close to going off.
Moffitt’s math put the harvestable surplus of the 2017 return at a mere 5,000 kings. Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten, a former commercial fishermen, later decided 3,500 of those fish and eventually 4,000 would go to the 500 permit-holders in the Cordova-based Copper River commercial, salmon gillnet fishery, and the last 1,000 fish would be reserved for upriver subsistence fisheries.
The commercial fishery has now had two, short, 12-hour fishing periods, and it has caught 3,616 kings – only 384 short of its publicly stated limit.
A good thing?
Nobody really knows for certain why the catch is so high. Salmon have only begun to trickle back into the river. As of Tuesday, a sonar on the lower river had counted but 8,862 moving upstream. There were 65,880 on the same date last year.
The river has been running low. Fisheries biologists say that sometimes slows the entry of fish into the river. Fish could be holding offshore waiting to make their move upstream.
Where they are holding then becomes important. To try to protect kings this year, Fish and Game forced gillnets outside of barrier islands off the mouth of the river. If there are a bunch of fish that already got past the fleet and are holding behind the barrier islands or waiting in the river to move up, it could be the early catch of 3,616 – which is considerably more than Fish and Game hoped to see caught this early – merely means the run is bigger than forecast, possibly far bigger.
Forecasting salmon returns is by no means an exact science. State forecasts are regularly off. The Copper River forecast in 2015 called for a return of 35,500 kings; 56,174 came back – about 58 percent more that forecast.
That year was also an anomaly. In three of the last five years, returns have come back less than forecast. In two of those years – 2014 and 2016 – they were way low. A 62,000 fish return was forecast for 2014, but only 35,322 came back. A 62,000 fish return was forecast last year, but only 29,634 came back.
Because commercial fishery managers failed to recognize the 2016 run failure in time, the commercial fishery ended up badly overfishing Copper kings.
Only 16,009 of the fish made it into the river, Moffitt noted in his year-end summary, and “after upriver fisheries harvests are subtracted, the total spawning escapement estimate will likely be close to half of the lower bound SEG (sustainable escapement goal) of 24,000 fish.”
Simple translation: Only half the number of salmon needed to sustain the Copper River king run made it back to the spawning grounds.
State fisheries biologists are in the business of seeing that sort of thing doesn’t happen. There was a time when meeting minimums was the bottom line for Fish and Game. The state agency had a reputation for standing up to powerful fishing interests to protect fish.
But times have changed.
The agency was once also run by commissioners trained in the sciences. It is now run by a former politician and former commercial fisherman appointed by Gov. Bill Walker.
The agency once let the Board of Fisheries, the state’s regulation setting agency, decide on how to allocate harvests. Commissioner Cotten this year took on that job himself.
To keep the harvest below 5,000, he banned sport fishing for kings throughout the Copper River drainage. Bruce Cain, the president of the Chamber of Commerce in Glennallen, the regional hub in the Copper Basin, said that move is going to decimate tourism businesses up and down the river.
Cotten also prohibited personal-use dipnetters, who aren’t allowed to fish until June, from keeping any king salmon. And he imposed onerous rules and a limit of two-kings for the season on subsistence fishermen, who are by law supposed to have a priority on the resource.
When the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee appealed to the board for emergency consideration of those actions, Cotten vetoed the appeal because, he said, there was no emergency. Two board members than brought the issue to the full board, which voted 4-to-3 to back Cotten.
Board chairman John Jensen just happened to be another commercial fisherman.
All of this puts the fisheries biologists actually making the fishing decisions in a tough spot.
They are under considerable pressure from commercial fishing interests to open a second fishing period normally scheduled for this week. The Monday catch of 52,000 sockeye – 44 percent more than for the Thursday opener – would make it appear sockeye are making a strong move to the river.
And the commercial fishermen, pretty much to a man, believe the big early catch of kings is indicative of nothing other than a stronger than forecast return.
But a forecast-beating run is a gamble. If another 1,500 kings are caught in a Thursday opening, the catch will be at 5,116 – more than the allowable catch for all fisheries combined – with weeks yet to go in the Copper River commercial season.
King catches do fall in June, but the gillnet fishery continues to catch some kings in the process of fishing for sockeye all through the month. Gillnet gear is what biologists call “dirty.” It doesn’t discriminate between desired catch and undesired catch. It snags by the gills anything that swims into it.
If fishery managers gamble that the king run is bigger than forecast, and the king run indeed turns out to be bigger than forecast, they will be heroes to commercial fishermen.
But what happens if they gamble and are wrong?
They can’t close the sport fishery in the name of conservation because it’s already closed. They can’t prohibit dipnetters from taking kings in the name of conservation because that prohibition is already in place.
All they can do is close the subsistence fishery to try to put adequate numbers of kings on the spawning beds, and that option is fraught with peril. The Copper River was the stage for the Katie John lawsuit which imposed federal oversight on state management of fisheries to protect subsistence – the age-old practice of Alaskans hunting and fishing to feed themselves.
If the state manages the Copper in such a way that a commercial fishery is allowed to trump a subsistence fishery, the federal role in fisheries management could well expanded beyond oversight to a takeover.
The worst part here is that state management to this point hasn’t worked all that well.
After Cotten made his allocation decision, fisheries managers moved to limit the commercial catch by closing nearshore areas along the Copper River delta, the areas where the most kings are usually caught; delaying the start of the season; and opening with a relatively short, 12-hour fishing period.
The thinking behind the decision-making was that the early king catch could be minimized, thus allowing for later king catches when the big fish become wholly incidental to the harvest of much more plentiful sockeye salmon.
Things didn’t work out quite as planned. Commercial fishermen caught 1,879 kings during that first opening – or one king for about every 19 sockeye. The catch was way bigger than Fish and Game hoped, which led biologists to limit this week’s second opening to another 12 hours.
This time they got a little help from Mother Nature. Bad weather and rough seas made for difficult fishing. That is believed to have helped hold down the catch. And ratio of kings to sockeye improved, falling from 1-to-19 to 1-to-30, but the king catch of 1,737 was still too big.
Fisheries managers don’t have all that many tools to try to clean up a gillnet fishery. The main ones are time and area closures. Sometimes those management techniques work. Sometimes they don’t.
There are 3,616 dead kings saying the area closures for the Copper River didn’t work so well.
What fisheries managers will be debating today is not only what they have in terms of run size – was the forecast indeed too low – but also what further they might do to reduce the commercial king catch without closing the fishery.
It’s become a given in Alaska that commercial fisheries don’t get closed unless a catastrophe looms. Most people in Cordova would consider the only catastrophe looming here a restriction on harvesting plentiful sockeye in order to let more kings escape into the river.
If there was an easy way to limit the catch to sockeye from here on out, there wouldn’t be a problem. But there is no easy way to limit the catch to sockeye. The nets catch what the nets catch, and markets are working against managers.
Due to scarcity, Copper River kings are worth a lot of money this year. More than $10 per pound on the dock at last report. For individual fishermen, catching kings is good. The fishery makes it difficult to target these fish, but any fishermen who starts catching a significant number of kings along with his (or her) sockeye catch isn’t going to pull in the nets and move elsewhere.
The inherent problem becomes the same as in the offshore trawl fisheries regularly under attack for their bycatch of king salmon. If bycatch increases profitability, there is no reason to avoid bycatch.
The pieces here make it easy to believe the situation on the Copper could get worse as Alaska moves into the summer. So cross your fingers and hope against hope that the king forecast underestimated the run.