Fisheries managers in Southcentral Alaska might still be wrestling with what to do about a weak return of king salmon to the Copper River, but their counterparts in Southeast Alaska have acted to protect kings returning to the Taku and Stikine Rivers.
Officials with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game today announced commercial troll fisheries – which catch most of the Southeast kings, or Chinook as they are otherwise called – will close at midnight Sunday.
“Preseason forecasts for wild Chinook salmon production in Southeast Alaska are at an all-time low,” a press release said. “Typically, in the Taku and Stikine rivers, nearly half the run has entered the river by the end of the third week of May; however, record low numbers of Chinook salmon are being seen in-river this year.”
The Taku and Stikine are transboundary rivers, and Fish and Game runs research programs with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada to assess in-season run strength.
“All indications from the stock assessment projects show that the Taku and Stikine Chinook salmon runs will be well below the preseason forecasts and ultimately, below the lower bound of each river’s escapement goal,” the press release said.
The two big, glacially fed rivers usually account for about 80 percent of the king production in the Alaska Panhandle, and the returns there are considered an indicator for other streams in the region.
Copper River troubles
No method for calculating early in-season returns of kings to the Copper exists at this time. Before the season opened there, Fish and Game forecast a return of only 29,000 kings with an allowable harvest of but 5,000. Four-thousand of the fish were earmarked for the Cordova drift gillnet commercial fishery, the rest for an upstream subsistence fishery.
The commercial fleet is fishing today. It caught 3,618 kings in two earlier, 12-hour openings. It is expected to go over the 4,000 limit with today’s 9-hour opening. But Fish and Game has revised their prediction of the size of the Copper run based on the big, early catches, although no new limit was set.
Cordova fishermen are confident there are far more of the big fish coming back than forecast.
“It is a good run of both species,” gillnetter Peter Brockert posted on Facebook. “We, the gillnetters, are fishing the ocean in front of a 60-mile-wide delta region with small mesh sockeye web. I had no kings the first period, and three last period in a blow that makes it difficult to hold kings anyway.”
Everyone in Cordova seems to know a fisherman trying to avoid catching kings in order to catch the more plentiful sockeye. The strategy is to the long-term advantage of fishermen.
If the king catch keeps climbing, fishery managers in Southcentral might have no choice but to follow the lead of fishery managers in Southeast and close the Cordova fishery to save kings. That would mean Cordova fishermen wouldn’t be able to fish for anything given the fish come back together and the kings are largely by-catch.
But the short-term, financial interest for the fishermen is in catching those very same kings because of their high value, and somebody is catching a significant number of kings. The fishery averaged four kings per landing (some fishermen may have made more than one landing) during the first opening.
If Brockert caught none then, someone had to bring the average up by catching his four plus four more. The big king catch could be an indicator of a strong run as the fishermen believe, or it could be the unusually low water on the Copper so far this year has kept kings offshore and concentrated them to boost the harvet.
Fishery managers at this point have no real idea as to how many kings have escaped the fishery to get into the river.
A sonar that counts fish at Miles Lake had recorded 17,924 salmon upstream by the end of Wednesday. It was the best day of the season by far with 6,404 salmon passing the counter on the day. But the counter can’t tell one salmon from another. Still, more than 95 percent of the fish are believed to be sockeye.
Were the 95 percent figure accurate, it would indicate that only 896 of the 24,000 kings spawners needed to sustain future runs have so far arrived, and this is the peak time for their return. But the sonar is nowhere near accurate enough to use for any sort of scientific estimate on king numbers.
A series of fish wheels operated by the Eyak Native Village under a contract with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service do provide a good, post-season estimate of in-river abundance using a scientifically tested mark-recapture program. But the wheels provide no in-season data on king salmon run strength. The state is working on a sonar that might be able to distinguish Chinook from sockeye, but such a system is years away even if the money can be found to test and then implement it.
The fish wheel at Baird Canyon in the lower river had captured only 93 king salmon as of Wednesday; the number is largely meaningless. Mark-recapture programs work by calculating the difference between the number of fish marked at a fish wheel downstream and the number of marked fish caught at a fish wheel upstream.
The difference between those two numbers is then used to estimate how many fish the downstream fish wheel missed. With enough data, the counting system is pretty accurate, but there is not now enough data.
The upstream wheel at Canyon Creek has yet to catch a tagged fish. John Whissel, who oversees the program for Eyak, said he feels sorry for state fisheries biologist trying to pull an answer to the size of the Copper River king run out of a “mystery box.”
Eyak, he added, would like to be able to provide more data to improve fisheries management, but development of a Copper River counting program is going to take time. The Copper is a big, fast-moving glacial river that carries so much sediment downstream its has been compared to a slurry pipeline.
Whissel said he believes that it might be possible to pair new and better sonar technology with the fish wheels for a time and then use a mark-recapture program to help calibrate the sonar to count kings and sockeye. But that’s years away, he said, and would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement at a time when both the state and federal governments are strapped for cash.
That leaves fishery managers caught in a box of their own. The simple solution in Southeast was to close the lid and be done with the problem, but the Southeast troll fishery is nowhere near as valuable as the Copper River king and sockeye fishery.
Copper River is the best known salmon brand in Alaska, which is what makes the fish especially valuable. They are the Romanee Conti of Alaska salmon.
CORRECTION: This story was modified from the original on May 30, 2017 to correct some errors in the description of how the Eyak fish wheels work.
Part of the King depletion story is the ever increasing trawl fishery in the Gulf of Alaska. The biomass harvested has increase 400 percent in the last 12 years. Observer coverage on Pollock boat is 40 percent reality 20 percent since its a 12 hour day . NPFMC has tried 24 hour coverage on a couple of boats and the bycatch rates were 4 to 6 times higher. Kings as far away as California congregate in the Gulf. Ironically I use to use King Salmon for crab bait in the 1980s when large trawlers like the sunset bay delivering Pollock to western Alaska Kodiak had around10 totes of King Salmon per delivery. I talked to former senator Mark Begich a few years ago about how Alaskans were paying the price for bycatch. Mark replied “Its all about the money Dan”
From fish and game today…
COPPER RIVER DISTRICT: King salmon harvest from the first three fishing periods was above anticipated levels despite unprecedented area restrictions, and poor weather conditions in the second and third fishing period that reduced harvest efficiency. This information continues to provide a preliminary indication of above anticipated king salmon abundance. Given the poor preseason king salmon outlook, a continued conservative commercial fisheries management approach is warranted. To reduce king salmon harvest during the next fishing period, start time will be delayed to avoid opening on an extreme low tide (minus 2.8) when fish are more vulnerable to harvest. In addition, the duration of this fishing period is shortened to avoid fishing after the late evening low tide.
And the miles lake sonar has gone wild… 38,000 crossed yesterday, and another 40,000 anticipated today… that would put 110,000 up river with anticipated crossing of 40,000…
Interesting thoughts preseason are not coming to fruition…. hmmm…
unfortunately, Peter, it’s hard to tell whether you’re latter conclusion is right or wrong. we know a lot of sockeye passed the sonar yesterday. there is an indication from the Eyak fishwheel that there might have been a good number of kings among them, but…. the ratio of kings to sockeye in the Thursday catch was down substantially. one of two things could have happened: a.) the management scheme to close the area behind the islands and then fish only on higher tide cycles could be working; or b.) the king run could have already peaked. if it’s the former, that would be great. if it’s the latter, given that we’re already over the estimated allowable harvest on the preseason forecast, it’s not, especially given an estimated subsistence take yet to come of 1,000 kings or more. continued fishing based on the “preliminary indication of above anticipated” abundance based on CPUE in commercial fisheries has led to the collapse of a number of fisheries. let’s hope that is not the case here.
Thanks for the reply Craig!
Also, while I am actually fishing on the copper river flats, I see a few things that some folks might fail to realize…..
Here are a couple actual possible explainations of the ratio of kings to sockeye on this last opener, both of these did happen:
a.) The swells from the southwest were quite interesting, creating a very hazardous marine condition. Swells make fishing very dangerous in shallow water. Holding a king in a sockeye sized gill net (4 7/8″ mesh size) is pretty questionable in the ocean on a calm day… as the king salmon are not “gill caught”, but that they get a nose hung up or a small fin gets tangled, a fisherman is “lucky” to bring aboard a king. And during rough weather, we joke about it being a washing machine… nets are bouncing in and out of the water with waves, effectively washing fish out of net.
-I’m not sure if it was in the media, but one boat was lost, the fishman was rescued, as well as the fatality of a well respected and loved fisherman who had 50 years of experience on the flats during this last opener.
b.) there was a Russian Orthodox holiday during the last opener. They have a strong faith, and do not fish on their holidays. Thus, the fleet of some 520 (or so) was reduced by 180-200 boats…
The fish and game announcement mentioned that there were 367 deliveries….
Always interesting to put hard numbers on an extremely variable natural resource. The difficulty in even figuring out how many are going up the river, let alone where they travel to in the ocean (not even to mention “hot blob” theorys of small fish, changing runs, warm water…).
And f&g IS tightly managing the fishery… from opening the fishery days late, closing the inside, limiting our fishing time, even as tightly as limiting our fishing time around low tides…
(We have been allowed to fish for 42 hours out of 360 hours – from traditional may 15th start to midnight may 29th – closer of 4th commercial opener).
The real shame is the fact that the technology is not on the river to determine actual numbers of kings going up the river…. That is the real problem…
Also, the number of fish crossing the sonar will skyrocket in the next few days, as this series of high and low tides push fish up the river. How long does it take fish to reach the sonar is another variable, 5-14 days?
Yes, it will be interesting to see how it all turns out! Hope they don’t over escape by a huge margin, as that can be a crisis that has happened elsewhere also.
the danger of over escapement is vastly over-rated, Peter. we do it big time in Bristol Bay almost every year, and it certainly hasn’t crashed anything. the Copper is a huge drainage made up of many systems for which ADF&G has never tried to develop SEGs. we might be still under-escaping it. we surely were back in the late ’70s and early ’80s when harvests never topped 1 million. everyone seems to have forgotten the history. the first catch over a million was the 1.2M in ’82; then it took another 4 or 5 years to get back to that after which the catch hovered around a million per year until the early 1990s when it went above a million and pretty much stayed until the 2008 crash. but then, of course, it came back and we were up in the 2M range in 2014 and 2015. that was unprecedented. a harvest at about 1.25M crashed the system about 100 years ago. there were Ahtnas upstream starving. we’ve been sort of blessed, but then, too, we’ve boosted the return with hatchery fish. goodly numbers of them some years.
The sustainable escapement goal (SEG) is defined as an escapement shown to produce yields over a 5-10 year period. It speaks nothing to the number that the run needs to perpetuate itself, which is called a SET or sustainable escapement threshold. The SET would be a number likely far lower than 24,000 which is the lower bound of the SEG. One shouldn’t imply that not reaching the 24,000 goal threatens the sustainability of the run, though obviously it wouldn’t bode well for future yields from the run, which is what everyone wants to see.
you are totally correct. salmon runs are perfectly sustainable at quite low levels. that’s generally not what we think of in Alaska in terms of quote-unquote “healthy” salmon runs, but certainly the state could manage to SETs and let runs poke along at low levels.
biologist Larry Engel and some others might argue that this is almost the policy being adopted for coho salmon in the Susitna and Matanuska rivers drainages. whether it is legal to manage at SET as a matter of official state policy, given a state constitution calling for “maximum use,” is something lawyers could probably debate for hours or days or weeks:
“Section 8.1 – Statement of Policy.
“It is the policy of the State to encourage the settlement of its land and the development of
its resources by making them available for maximum use consistent with the public
i certainly wouldn’t think managing Chinook for SET would provide “for maximum use consistent with the public interest,” but i know some commercial fishermen who would take that position as regards mixed stock fisheries. i even know a few who’d just as soon we get rid of kings and be done with the mixed stock problems they bring.
the Japanese extirpated most of their wild runs, as i’m sure you know, to maximize their ocean ranching and minimize the problems of trying to protect wild stocks. there’s no practical reason Alaska couldn’t do much the same, though i guess somebody might at some point file a federal suit under ESA. i’ve heard talk of such litigation vis-a-vis some seriously diminished Susitna salmon sockeye stocks.
As I mentioned in a previous thread the range of the projected return is 3,000-55,000 kings, so its an incredibly “soft” forecast yet many seem to be taking the mid-point of 29,000 as soon sort of solid number when it’s a loose guess at best. The “quota” of a 5,000.fish harvest is not any more solid nor should people freak out if the escapement is under 24,000 and then say the Department is threatening the sustainability of the run. This is just unfounded. I wonder what the Department would say the error bars are on any escapement count in the Copper? +/- 25%? I am giving the Department enough credit to try to do their best to have a sockeye fishery on the Flats yet minimize harvest of kings to the extent they can. It is certainly worthy of argument whether closing the sport fishery completely was warranted or if subsistence restrictions were also warranted. I think they probably jumped the gun there and should have waited to see how the early indications of run strength was before taking upriver measures.
It’s nice that ADF&G put the sustainability of the fish first in Southeast Alaska.
Hopefully the commissioner is starting to get it and he’ll act to assure the longevity of the king run in the Copper River as well.
Methinks you wish too much
Do you really think that Commissioner Cotten, a man with no science background and a lifelong commercial fisherman “gets it”? He determined that their was no emergency when a petition was filed by the Fairbanks AC asking the BOF for emergency relief by restricting the commercial fleet in PWS to prevent King harvest. Talk about putting the fox in charge of the chicken house! All other users are either restricted to 2 Kings (subsistence users ) or none for sport and dip netters, while the commercial fleet has caught well over what was projected to be the permissible maximum harvest of Kings. Does that sound like sound decisions from someone who gets it? And on top of this type of management it appears that the top official in the UFA (united fishermans association) Jerry McCune, and two others who are PWS drift fishermen , were arrested on May 18 for hiding salmon including King Salmon in their vessels and not reporting them as required by law and necessary to determine King harvest accurately. Given ADF&G’s forecast of the lowest King run ever, it is right to question the Commissioners decisions and wonder if McCune’s actions are engaged in by other commercial fishers or are just an anomaly.
Commissioner Cotten is a thoughtful guy and I’d guess he would defer to his staff recommendations on the petition. There are guidelines for accepting emergency petitions for consideration and both ADF&G and BOF didn’t find that the petition met the criteria. Not the first time the Fairbanks AC has done this type of thing, and perhaps Mr. Umphenour should read the criteria
before they fire them off. Also, that said, because Cotten was a part-time commercial fisherman in lower Cook Inlet at one time, one shouldn’t assume that it drives every decision that gets made in regard to fishery policy. Things aren’t that simplistic. And (not defending their behavior) the guys who didn’t report kings got citations. No one was “arrested”.
With all the talk of ADFG doing cost recovery fisheries, maybe all the harvested Copper River kings should go towards a cost recovery fishery only where the profits go towards paying for all the salmon research by comm fish across the state. To help pay for the research of hundreds of thousands of dollars to sustain a multi millions dollar industry. Keep everyone honest about reporting kings, so there is an accurate reporting for every last king of the return.
Although the margin of error of the Copper River king mark recapture study is most likely more than 500, nice to know the sport fisheries are totally closed to even less than 100 kings mortality, as ADFG knows even 100 kings makes a difference in this world famous iconic fishery.