Prized fish kill


Update: This story has been updated with video to illustrate Thursday fishing conditions.

The Copper River commercial fishery has claimed the life of a 69-year-old commercial fishermen from Cordova.

The body of 69-year-old Clifford M. Johns – “Mick,” to all his friends – was found on a beach off the Copper River Delta Thursday evening.

A search for the longtime commercial fisherman was launched after his gillnetter was spotted pilotless and turning circles off the delta, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

“He either fell overboard or had a heart attack,” said longtime friend and fellow fisherman Jerry McCune.

“His dad used to fish here before him,” McCune said. “I think he started in 1974. He always fished in the same spot.”

Or near the same spot.

Fellow fisherman Jeff Olsen described Johns as “an institution in this fleet. (He) was found on Pete Dahl beach. His boat was going in circles… another boat flipped but he was picked out of the water and was OK. Mick has fished the same spot for 50 years. He had his net on board. (He) musta been hit with a breaker and washed overboard.”

Copper River Seafoods has posted video of sea conditions at the time. The video shows waters clearly rough enough to knock someone out of a boat.

Copper River fishermen faced difficult conditions on Thursday with rough seas, a short fishery opening, and a fishing restriction that kept them out of sheltered waters behind the islands off the mouth of the Delta.

The fishing restriction is intended to protect a troubled run of prized Copper River king salmon. The fish concentrate in the waters behind the islands. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has set an allowable harvest of only 5,000 of the kings for the year, and more than 4,500 have already been harvested in three short fishing periods. 

Without the closure, McCune conceded, “we probably would have caught two or three times as many.”

Dangerous fishery

But the closure, coupled with a series of spring storms unusual in recent years, has made the already dangerous fishery more dangerous, and now possibly deadly. Some fishermen blamed government regulation for Johns’s death.

“A big swell and the biologist making us fish our small boats in the ocean only made it so there was no one around in other boats to help until we all came in at the end of the period and he was found,” fellow fishermen Bob Martinson posted on his Facebook page. “So sad for his family and friends. He is fishing here with his son Matt who, just this year, bought a permit and boat to follow in his father’s footsteps. Normally on days like this, we had the option to fish in more protected waters.”

“Two serious accidents yesterday, one fatality, one boat lost, three near misses. If this management stays like it is, this is only the beginning,” fisherman Peter Brokert posted on the Craig Medred Facebook page.  “There needs to be some waters inside the barrier islands to fish, or more people will die.”

Johns’s death is almost certain to put more pressure on Fish and Game biologists to relax the fishing regulations, but fishery managers are in a difficult spot with a dangerously low run of kings expected in a river where the kings were badly overfished last year. And at this time, all they have are hints the fish might be coming back in better numbers than expected. There is no real evidence.

Meanwhile, sky-high prices for freshly caught Copper River salmon – a prized, first-fish-of-the-season – encourage fishermen to take risks to fill their holds while fishing a coastline that long ago proved deadly.

Almost every year, or every other year, it seems a fisherman dies, Brockert said.

Commercial fishing is one of the deadliest occupations in the country. The Centers for Disease Control says the death rate is 29 times that of the national average. 

Most fishermen understand they are sometimes rolling the dice when they head out of the harbor.

“All the years Mick Johns and I have fished this place, he’s one of the last I expected to be lost yesterday,” Martinson said.

The death was particularly tragic in that “Mick just defeated cancer,” Olsen said. “He was loved here immensely. Hard telling what happened but he was way to salty to merely be washed overboard.”

McCune said Johns normally wore a “Stormy Seas” personal flotation device as a precaution if he was washed out of his boat by big wave. But, McCune added, he’s not sure how much help that would have been this year because of water temperatures.

Alaska coastal waters have returned to more normal temperature of 41 to 44 degrees after a long run of warm water, he said. If “cold shock” from falling into water of that temperature doesn’t kill someone, they can survive for periods from tens of minutes to a couple of hour, depending upon a variety of conditions.

Johns had most of the conditions favoring survival working against him. Rough seas accelerate the onset of hypothermia. Full immersion speeds the onset of hypothermia. Age usually speeds the onset of hypothermia.

27 replies »

  1. Matt,

    My deepest condolences to you and your family on your father’s passing, may he rest in peace.

    The issue it seems we all have is with the state biologists.

    I am not sure where they receive their education, but it appears to go against all scientific theories of inter-connection between species or what scientists refer to as “Deep Ecology.”

    Don Young and the Feds are over-turning protective measures on “Keystone Species” that will allow “Aerial hunting of wolves and PUPS, live trapping and bear baiting”

    Killing off Wolves, Bears and over harvesting Salmon make many Alaskans upset, since we cannot enjoy the life we traveled so far to be part of.

    Once again in Willow, we are not allowed to keep (and eat) any King Salmon caught anywhere along the park’s hwy…

    Subsistence folks and sport fish people have a right to be upset over the imbalance of stock that has been placed in the hands of commercial interests, both in the fishing industry and big-game hunting guide industry as well.

    Alaska needs a new politician that is not a retired state employee, but rather a younger individual who has a stake in keeping the resources shared and not misappropriated.

    Maybe as you find solace with your dad’s departure, you can tell us more about your experiences with the “miss managed” Salmon stock of America.

  2. Any one who has been to sea knows it is a calculated risk to leave land. Not to be absurd, but so is getting out of bed. Those of us who have cast off, shoved off, have been motivated by a pleasure more addicting than money. As a former ‘American seaman,’ I’ve never met a soul who ever spoke of the money, even though money certainly was a tangible reward. In fact, even in the heyday of king crabbing, where the earnings could be astoundingly quick and unbelievably lucrative, just the mention of potential income, when you sought a crewman’s berth would disqualify you being hired. To hear anyone sully the motivation of this career fisherman’s mindset, by inferring monetary gain, is a fool. While ‘farming the sea’ was Clifford John’s livelihood, to be sure he engaged in the pursuit no differently than those of us who enjoy mountaineering. It’s unusual circumstances which deter a climb; and it is not reckless for those with experience equal to the challenges which might present themselves, to walk into storms. It is all a matter of knowing one’s self, their ability. This wasn’t Mr. Johns first pony ride; undoubtedly, he’s seen big seas, high winds, both.Things happen, even to the best, most skilled, most prepared of us. To be sure, the restrictions of this threatened fishery, denied fishing in more protected waters. There is something to be said for the unfortunate predicament faced by Fish and Game, who need to protect the sustainability of the fishery. When I king crabbed, there was a similar quota…and when that quota was reached, the fishery closed. This, you could say, forced fellows with substantial boat payments to fish in weather that prudence would have counseled otherwise. They changed this, due to the number of lost vessels, instituting a personal quota. Maybe, that is what is necessary, on the chance that Mr. Johns might have had the luxury to fish calmer seas, but without the incentive to not have his skill and fortune have a finite potential. Second guessing won’t bring Mr. Johns back; mourn his loss; and celebrate his indomitable desire to pursue his life’s work. I applaud his self-reliance, and the positive example of a life well-lived.

  3. The men here risk there lives here to do what they love. We are portrayed as greedy, evil, out of state fisherman. I live in kenai, some live in state and some out of state. But we are a family…. I am saddened by the loss.

  4. The drift fishery has gone on for decades with sustainability. The targeted areas of kings has been tightened significantly over the past decade for the drift fishery. It’s easy to point figures at something you nothing about, how about people open there eyes to the lethal efforts in river users have perfected in the past decade. Our remote areas have become much more accessible by the continued efforts of outdoorsman(private, outfitted, native user groups) looking for the next great adventure or “last real Alaska” honey-hole to either promote for ones own or “commercial sport” fish adventure.
    Better gear, Kevlar line, scented baits, depth sounders, super cubs, helicopter trips, ultimate jet boats, pack rafts, all have put pressure on king stocks in parts of the river that use to be safe havens.
    The killing of kings in river or in their spawning beds has possibly become a much bigger part of the management issue then non commercial fleet is willing to accept.

    • i understand that this is what you want to believe, Bruce, but the data – at least as it relates to the Copper River – doesn’t support your conclusion. the once prime tributary for Chinook fishing used to be the Gulkana. it averaged 4,000 to 5,000 fish harvests in the 1990s. it went downhill in the 2000s. the entire upper Copper River harvest has fallen with the exception of a good year a decade ago when anglers caught 5,113. since then? the average is down in the 1,500 to 1,600 range in the Tonsina, Klutina, Gulakan and other systems combined. the gear improvements are nice, but the reality of the sport fishery is that a good percentage of the participants are borderline incompetent. you can have the best equipment in the world, but if you don’t know how to use it, it’s not worth spit.

      • The part of your reply that seems to fit this argument best is the believe what you want part. The lodges and guides ( starting in 80-90s) that are pushing farther into the back country are far from incompetents. The efficiency of the average Joe on the Kenai or any river today is a far cry from what could be done 20-30 years ago. A guy use to have to put in serious hours to catch a king. Now young guides right out of high school can run boats snd limit 4 guys out doing two trips a day. Are you saying this does not happen in the copper river system? There are as more operators in the magazines, sport shows, and kiosk flyers advertises king salmon trips in the rivers you mention then there are fish markets selling a few fillets for 50$ a pound
        Rivers I use to fish with only a small amount of locals and a few bears now have fly in day trips and lodges. Like you say believe what you want.
        I have been a participant in all parts of the king fishery. In all parts of the state. They are a beautiful thing and a big part of my life. I can without a doubt say I can kill more kings with a rod and reel then I can with a area e drift permit. And most of my buddy’s will say. I’m not even a very good fishermen.

      • well, the one thing that is clear it that you haven’t been on the Kenai for a while, Bruce. the king fishery there is a shadow of its former self. and the data on the Copper River basin is clear. go read it. the sport harvest is less than 1 percent of the total harvest. “Since 2000, angler effort has declined to levels slightly lower than those observed prior to 1990,” the state reports.
        the 10-year average sport catch for the Copper is 17,652 salmon of all species. the 2015 Chinook catch alone (22,500) in the commercial fishery alone was way bigger, but even the 10-year average through 2014 (18,383) tops the ALL SPECIES sport catch of salmon in the entire drainage. you can believe whatever you want, but the data is clear. the sport fisheries are not the problem.

    • Craig
      I sat in the kenai river about 8 years ago and said I can no longer be a part of this fiasco of bumper to bumper boats and the king killing frenzy. Sold my boat and haven’t been apart of it since. But from a conservationist/outdoorsman standpoint I could no longer stomach what it had become.
      I haven’t killed a king in any river since.

      • I use to read your column and look at is as you were a journalist. Thought possibly the dialogue would lead to some sort of consensus on ways to improve the resource. Now mostly I see antagonist. Best of luck to you.

      • Bruce: blaming other people for a problem of which you are part doesn’t lead to dialogue. neither does trying to spread misinformation, or taking shots at the messenger because you don’t like facts. and the facts here are pretty simple. the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is wrestling with a classic mixed stock fishery problem: a weak stock gets hammered while an indiscriminate fishery tries to harvest a big run of a strong stock. we’re long way from 1998 when the commercial harvest of Copper River kings was 68,827. the run was 58 percent above the forecast in 2015, and we didn’t see that many. but the 56,200 Chinook that came back did allow for a catch of 22,500 in the commercial fishery which was on its way to a 1.75M harvest of sockeye, the seventh largest in history. the sport fishery you blame caught 1,500. but at least the river got escapement, which is a good thing as 2012, 2013 and 2014 were the lowest ever Chinook returns, according to Fish and Game, despite the highest ever salmon numbers past the sonar. and then, of course, we come to 2016 when we only got about half of the Chinook escapement. i’m sorry you’re not fishing. i know it’s painful to watch the fish go by. but there’s a problem, and it’s not the “operators in the magazines, sport shows, and kiosk flyers advertises king salmon trips in the rivers” of the Copper Valley that you want to blame. about the only king fishery that was left there was the Klutina, and of course that’s shut down along with everyone else these days, and the people who do come to fish sockeye only harvest about 20,000, which is about two-thirds of what was caught in the first 12-hour Cordova opener this year. if you want to point fingers, at least find some group to blame that kills enough fish to statistically register. a sport catch of less than 1 percent of the annual total harvest, which makes it an even smaller fractional percentage of the total run, is statistically insignificant. it’s actually smaller than the margin of error in the count. the personal-use dipnet fishery (127,667 salmon avg.) or Glennallen subsistence fishery (81,745 salmon avg.) would be better targets, but when it comes to Chinook, they’re combined, annual, average harvest is pretty meaningless, too. of their combined annual catch of 209,412 only about 3 percent is Chinook. the unavoidable reality is the Copper River gillnet fishery with its 536 permitted fishermen is the elephant in the room.

  5. Anyone who uses my dads death to push an agenda is heartless and ignorant. I appreciate some of the things that were said, others I did not. We don’t know everything that happened yet, we don’t know exactly what caused this yet, and until we do every word written had better be a loving tribute to a tragic loss. Anything else is insensitive, here say, capitalizing, pushing a slant or trying to gain attention. I’m not angry. Just give us time to grieve and gain information and process this, and if you have something to say about it you’d better know what you’re talking about and you’d better have known him and how wonderful he was. He was the kindest, sweetest man I ever knew, he was my hero and I loved him very much. He was so much more than a piece of a story about how fishing is going this year. He was much more than a fisherman, but he was no doubt a fisherman through and through. He loved his job, he loved his family and everyone of his friends and made sure they knew it. He knew exactly what he was doing and where he was, I was right there, I talked to him about seven o’clock and he was about to pick, and he did get his net in, beyond that we just don’t know yet. If you have something to say it should be something you could say to my face. I hesitate to use this medium and lend more attention and followers to it, but it’s out there already and being seen, and I wanted to set some things straight. The management is mistaken right now and making our jobs more difficult, putting us out of our comfort zones, and I will talk to the biologist in person. But it’s hard to give a fuck about any of that right now. Every fisherman here wants the fishery to be regulated and protected, they have no interest in overfishing because they want this fishery to thrive forever, they want to hand it down to their sons and daughters. If you think greed had anything to do with why we were out there then you’re just plain wrong. It wasn’t even good fishing, he was out there because that’s what he loved and that’s just what he did. And he wanted to teach me how to fish Pete Dahl. He was a better fisherman than I’ll ever be, and this was not a calculated risk for money, this was an accident and a tragedy. If the fish were slamming the net like crazy my dad would still drop everything to help someone in need. I think every fisherman here would do the same, I witnessed it first hand on Thursday, that’s what makes this place special. I owe everyone that helped look for him a thank you, there had to have been twenty boats out there looking. Thank you to the ‘cost recovery’ for staying behind and leading the dances with clams back to town. My dad was just telling me that the other day, “you wouldn’t believe how many guys here would stay up all night wrenching with you just so you can get out there and cork em”. He wants his ashes scattered on Pete Dahl bar, right where we were, he wants to be there forever and that tells you everything you need to know about why we were out there. It was not greed. Thank you Eric, everything you said was right.

    • sorry for your loss, Matt. losing a parent is tough no matter the circumstances. be thankful for what you had. i lost my dad when he was in his 40s, and were in the middle of a bad road. we never really got to make amends. it’s a great thing to to be able to say your dad was the kindest, sweetest man you ever knew. a blessing actually. it took me along time to simply realize my dad was a guy doing a tough job, raising me; and doing it pretty damn well.

      • Matthew,

        Everything you said about your dad is so true-he would be proud of you for the speaking out. He loved his family and loved the fishing life. Thank you to Craig Medred for your coverage of this story as friends and family who are not there have some insight as to what happened. Zack,Mathew and Karen know that you are in our prayers.
        Uncle Al and Aunt Rose

    • Matt I am so sorry! Onmy younger days I found comfort hearing him and Larry talking on ch 7, fishing alone, and knowing he was there to help if I got in trouble fishing alone. Truly a great man! Kindness and wisdom are an understatement for Mick. He will be missed.

  6. Very interesting quotes from UFA ( united fishermen association ) President Jerry McCune, a commercial Fisherman in PWS, stating that without the closure the drift fleet would have caught two or three times more Kings. Interesting, because McCune and a couple other commercial fishermen were arrested on May 18 for hiding salmon on board including King salmon and not reporting them on fish tickets. Not only does it seem that UFA president Jerry may be a law breaker but a hypocrit as well. Good question is whether their actions are representative of others in the PWS drift fleet or just an anomaly. Way to go President McCune!

    • So a couple of old time 70 yr olds,after a hard day at sea, bring in a 5 lb sockeye for thier old ladies, get harassed by some young punk cop and you think it is a big deal? No ,simply tender forgot to report. If they were trying to hide fish, they would not have found them so easy. Counter will be 3 times projected as of yesterday.

      • Dan: Do you have first hand unfo that suggests that these old timers only had a 5 lb sockeye unreported? You make it sound like the President of UFA is an old feeble minded fisherman. He might wish to dispute that. I’m pretty sure that the three who got arrested, had more than a single red salmon that was unreported. The troopers have better things to do than bust someone over a single red. And also pretty sure that every fisherman knows exactly what is reported and not reported. Makes one wonder how many other of these “old time 70 year olds” drifters may have made the same clumsy “mistake ” Very bad timing to try to hide Kings.

  7. I’m so sorry for the loss of this long time fisherman. If commercial fishing can’t go out during these tough regulation times, them maybe the fish commission should shut the whole harvest down until the king escapement is met. This will save countless lives!

  8. While I mourn the loss of life I cannot abide the ignorance and greed of the commercial fishermen.
    “we probably would have caught two or three times as many.” Yea, you could have wiped out the entire Copper River Red runs for everyone forever if there were not restrictions placed on your greed. Allowing Commercial Fisheries to manage themselves resulted in an over 95% reduction in Atlantic Cod, as a recreational fisherman in Alaska I have not caught a Salmon in the last 4 years…40 years ago I had to toss back a dozen or so that I accidentally snagged almost every time I went out.

    The man knew that the seas were unfriendly that day, and being a seasoned seaman he had the choice to risk it all and took that course.

    • mourn him, bill. trust me, he didn’t go out there just for the money anymore than i do the journalism for the money. yeah, the money made it better, i’m sure (it most certainly would her), but for most of these guys the fishing is in their blood; it’s something their compelled to do.

      • Thank you Craig for saying it well. It is in our blood. Mick I known well, his wife and sons have stories to tell. He was a mentor, a man who should of retired to pass the heritage on without his loss. He was a gentleman, a great father, a man of wisdom. Not a man of greed as arm chair pundits may want to speculate that have no understanding what he did. Mick lived life through a long standing love, passion, history, and heritage of making memories, stories, and a life of providing for his family. If you or your followers want to have insight, cultural understanding, perspective of long standing tradition? I’d be personally happy to take you out in the Gulf of Alaska to show you what we have to endure, and in doing so I will be happy to share with you my family’s heritage.

      • thanks Eric. i’ve sailed the Gulf of Alaska in small boats and used to have a friends in another life who were trollers out there for a good part of the year. i’ve got a pretty good idea of what you endure. i used to love getting bashed around in boats and scared shitless on occasion. i admire people who can work in those conditions.

    • You sir are an ignorant POS. You have no idea what you are talking about. Have you ever been on any body of water other than a sheltered lake or river? I think not!

    • “The man knew that the seas were unfriendly that day, and being a seasoned seaman he had the choice to risk it all and took that course.”
      Your statement seems a bit coarse, to me, but clearly Mick knew what the conditions were and he chose to fish “outside” rather than stay home. Ordinarily he would have fished inside Pete Dahl but inside closure changed his plans-for whatever reason Mick got separated from his boat in that surf.
      Copper River fishery is regularly given storms and the inside fishery has usually been crowded with those not wanting to fight the outside swells. Your “risk it all” doesn’t really get close to what is involved IMO. Folks have different boats and different maintenance issues that might keep some from going out in these conditions but, for the most part, they go out and fish according to their knowledge and experience.
      Mick was traveling when his situation occurred and IMO he most likely got caught by a breaker that knocked him out of his boat yet didn’t sink it. These sneakers can happen in short order on those bars and beaches, that are paid attention to by Flats fishermen, but something unusual happened to Mick on that day IMO.
      “Dances with Clams” moored across from my boat for a number of years in Cordova and I knew Mick Johns to be a real gentleman. RIP!

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