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.”
“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.