UPDATED, 5/25/2017: Director of Commercial Fisheries addresses state’s comfort level that the king run is larger than forecast.
After predicting the worst king salmon run to the Copper River since 1985 and closing every king salmon sport fishery in the basin to protect the fish, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has changed its mind two, brief periods into the commercial fishing season.
The state agency is not lifting the sportfishing ban or allowing any harvest of king salmon in a personal-use dipnet fishery set to open in early June, but it is now allowing more commercial fishing for kings.
The decision came after about 400 Cordova-based drift gillnetters caught a total of 3,618 of the big fish on their way to harvesting almost 88,000 sockeye salmon in two, 12-hour fishery openings off the Copper River Delta this week and last.
The size of the catch was judged an indicator of a stronger-than-expected return, but it is clear the decision did not come easy.
Asked to assess state confidence in run size on a scale of one to five – “five being there’s no doubt we’ll make escapement and one being ‘please God let there be fish,'” Director of Commercial Fisheries Scott Kelley provided this answer via email:
“This is a good question and I wish I could give a confident answer. As it is we are managing on a day by day basis and carefully examining the data we have to make the most appropriate decisions possible.”
Copper River salmon management, like all salmon management in Alaska, is largely dictated by biology. But it isn’t only dictated by biology. Socio-economic decisions regularly come into play.
The Copper River fishery is important to the survival of the isolated port community of Cordova, and commercial fishermen can be an angry, sometimes intimidating, force for state biologists to deal with when fisheries are shut down. These socio-economic tensions surround all fisheries, but they are highest in places where there are competing demands for fish such as in Cook Inlet, where commercial and sport fishermen have been at war for years, and in Cordova, where the fish are comparable to gold in value.
Both Copper kings and sockeye are prized, “first-fish-of-the-season” in commercial salmon markets. Fishermen were reported to be getting more than $10 per pound for kings and $6.50 for sockeye at the dock. Prices later in season are expected to fall to a third of that or less.
Before the 3,618-catch of kings, Fish and Game had announced a total, expected king return of only 29,000 fish with an allowable harvest of but 5,000. After closing the sport fisheries and banning any dipnet catch, the agency announced it was going to divide the harvest between the commercial and subsistence fisheries with the former getting the lion’s share of the catch – 4,000 kings.
Given the 3,618-catch and a 4,000-fish limit, there was no way the agency could prosecute another commercial opening without exceeding the limit, but that was solved by the Wednesday announcement that the larger than expected catch of kings in the first two openings “provides a preliminary indication of above anticipated king salmon abundance.”
Director of Commercial Fisheries Scott Kelley did not respond to a message asking for his level of confidence in the “preliminary indication.”
The “Fishery News Release” announcing it hinted at both surprise at the size of the early king catch – it came in a restricted catch area during some bad weather – and concerns about the validity of the preliminary indication.
Instead of giving commercial fishermen a standard 12-hour period, or 24 or 48 hours as sometimes happens in the Cordova fishery this time of year, fishing was limited to but nine hours from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday.
The fishing period was shortened, according to the press release, “to avoid opening on an extreme low tide (minus 3.4) when fish are more vulnerable to harvest. In addition, the duration of this fishing period is shortened to avoid fishing after the evening low tide.”
King salmon, in general, travel deeper in the water column than sockeye salmon. They are believed to be more vulnerable to gillnets when tides are low and the nets hang closer to the ocean floor.
The fishing announcement included a closure of nearshore waters where most kings are traditionally caught. Commercial fishermen, most of whom have been proclaiming the king return larger than forecast since the unexpectedly high catch of the first opening, appeared pleased with the Fish and Game announcement.
But the news release did contain words of caution:
“Given the poor preseason king salmon outlook, a continued conservative commercial fisheries management approach is warranted.”
Fish and Game is struggling to get a firm handle on the exact size of this year’s king return to the Copper. The agency has limited, in-season tools for assessing the return in real time.
A sonar counter near Miles Lake counts the number of salmon entering the river, but cannot differentiate between kings and sockeyes. Fish wheels upstream are combined in a mark-recapture program that can estimate the number of kings making it into the river, but the wheels have just begun running.
On its Copper River salmon management website, the agency notes the value of early season commercial catches in providing some feel for how salmon returns are developing but cautions “commercial harvest reports…provide fisheries biologists with early clues…(but) biologists are careful in drawing conclusions based on early-season harvest data because it is sensitive to variations in run timing.
“A large harvest on the opening day of the commercial fishing season might indicate that the run will be large or it might indicate that it is early. And many factors unrelated to run size can influence how many fish are caught during a commercial period including tides, the number of boats fishing, whether the fleet was clumped or randomly distributed and whether fishermen found fish in schools or spread out.”
The science of fisheries management is far from an exact science. State biologists have been pondering the variables since the first catch data came in.