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.”
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.