The 68-year-old president of the United Fishermen of Alaska – one of the 49th state’s most powerful lobbies – and three other commercial fishermen have been cited in Cordova for failing to report salmon catches.
Jerry McCune said earlier this week that he simply made a mistake after dropping his commercial catch at a tender. McCune said he told the tender to record his catch for the day plus three salmon – a “little teeny king” and two sockeye – he was taking home with him.
When he got his “fish ticket” back from the tender, he said, he tossed it into the cabin of the boat without checking to see if his so-called “home pack” catch had been recorded. Back at the harbor, he said, he was met by Alaska Wildlife Troopers, showed them the fish he’d kept, and discovered they hadn’t been recorded.
Troopers gave him a citation, and he called the tender to tell it to correct the report, he said.
“It wasn’t like I was fishing over the line,” McCune said, “but at the end of the day, it’s my responsibility. It is my responsibility to check the (fish) ticket.”
McCune, who was reached by telephone, sounded mainly embarrassed about what had happened.
“I’ve never had a ticket in my life,” he said.
One of the other fishermen says he was wrongly cited and plans to fight. The two others, one who is 69 and one who is 75, could not be reached.
Some Cordova commercial fishermen reacted to the charges against McCune and the others with claims the actions were politically motivated. The troopers were reported to have flown into Cordova – an isolated, port community of 2,200 unconnected to the Alaska road system – from a post on the Kenai Peninsula, 180 miles to the west on the far side of Prince William Sound.
Some subsistence, personal-use dipnet, and rod-and-reel fishermen from communities upriver on the Copper or elsewhere in Alaska cited the accusations as evidence of widespread under reporting of Copper River king salmon harvests in the Cordova area.
There was no evidence to support either of those ideas, but emotions run hot in Alaska fishery politics or what is often just referred to as “fishtics.”
The citations were issued on May 18 after the year’s first opening of the Copper River salmon fishery. Alaska State Troopers reported them three days later.
They caused an immediate buzz in the Alaska fishing community given the dynamics of a year in which the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has forecast a disastrously low return of king salmon to the Copper.
King salmon sport fisheries throughout the Copper River basin have been closed for the season. Dipnetters have been banned from keeping kings. And subsistence fishermen, who are supposed to have a harvest priority, have been limited to two kings each for the year.
None of these groups are fishing yet, and the commercial fishery has already caught 4,793 Chinook. That is only 207 fish short of the total allowable harvest Fish and Game set as acceptable for the year, and another commercial opening is set for Monday.
Going into the season, Fish and Game called for a total harvest of 5,000 kings with 1,000 of those to be reserved for subsistence fishermen upriver. Now, the agency is saying that the “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.”
Commercial fishermen, who have said all along they thought the king forecast was faulty, are saying “we told you so” with some accusing Fish and Game of putting a target on their backs by closing the sport and personal-use takes of kings before getting a feel for how many kings are returning.
Take a guess
The problem is there’s no real evidence to indicate the king forecast is wrong.
To try to protect kings, state fishery managers started the season with a closure of sheltered waters behind the barrier islands off the Copper River delta. That is where most king are usually caught.
Despite the closure, fishermen landed way more kings than managers expected during both the first and second, 12-hour fishing periods. So managers shortened the third period so as to not only restrict fishing time but to end fishing at lower tides.
Kings are believed to travel deeper in the water column than sockeye. By limiting fishing to times periods when tides are high enough to keep the lead lines that hang at the bottoms of gillnets well above the bottom of the Gulf of Alaska, managers hoped to cut the king catch.
And the king catch did go down, dropping from an average of 1,818 for the first two periods of the fishery to 1,157 Chinook for the May 25 opener. The ratio of sockeyes, the strong stock, to kings, the weak stock, also improved, going from a two-period average of 24 sockeye for every king to 32 sockeye for every king.
The problem is, as McCune noted, “they have no index.”
With the fisheries being prosecuted in new ways, fishery managers have no history against which to compare the catch. Director of Commercial Fisheries Scott Kelley was left a message earlier in the week asking how exactly the state agency knows the reduced catch in the last king fishing period doesn’t simply reflect a king run that has gone past its peak and started to decline.
He has yet to return the call and answer the question.
In past years, king catches have started trending downward toward the end of May. Cordova fishermen caught 3,002 kings during a May 25 opening last year only to have the catch drop to 1,932 on the following, May 28 opening as the run began to fade for the season.
Fisheries managers would like to believe that their restrictions have reduced the harvest of a king run that is, hopefully, coming back bigger than the 29,000 fish forecast, but they have no way of knowing.
What they are very aware of is that a state sonar that counts salmon headed up the muddy, fast-flowing Copper started clicking like crazy on Friday. More than 38,000 salmon went up the river that day; another 28,000 followed on Saturday.
Painful for fishermen
By Sunday morning, close to 103,000 salmon had gone upriver – well more than twice the number of spawners Fish and Game biologists say they need by that date. Commercial fishermen were seeing red.
Salmon are a common property resource in the 49th state, but Alaska voters in 1972 approved a Constitutional amendment that seriously altered the way salmon were viewed. The amendment allowed the state to create an exclusive club of limited-entry, commercial salmon permit holders who have increasingly over the years come to think of the salmon resource as theirs.
For many if not most of the 536 owners of Copper River drift gillnet permits, every salmon over the cumulative goal of 43,400 for May 27 was a fish worth tens of dollars the state had taken out of their pockets. That fisheries managers might have had no choice but to let those sockeye upstream in order to avoid catching the threatened kings swimming with them was irrelevant because nearly all of the fishermen believe the state king forecast is wrong.
“I just wish they knew as biologist what we inside fisherman know,” fisherman Dan Jory texted, “that it is always the kings that come first. And that they have no way to count the kings. We fished the inside five days a week for generations,and maintained sustainability.
“Notice the huge spike in daily escapement, and that we are double the anticipated cumulative for this date soon to be much more. How about a story on that truth?”
The sonar did spike, but the evidence for the kings coming first is thin. Fish wheels put in the river to capture, tag and then use a capture-recapture analysis to estimate run strength, didn’t catch a king until May 18, and the wheels had caught less than 150 through May 25.
The Chinook catch has since began to pick up in unison with the sonar with a total of 400 kings caught by Saturday night, but what that means is anyone’s guess until wheels even further upstream began to catch tagged fish. The ratio between tagged and non-tagged kings provides an estimate of what percentage of all fish were caught and from that biologists can extrapolate a run-size estimate.
All they know at this point is that 400 kings they’ve seen in the fish wheel represent some portion of the run.
The lack of better management tools makes the situation difficult for everyone, and Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, a former fishermen, and Kelley have done all they can to make it easier for commercial fishermen.
They met with commercial fishermen in Cordova on May 18 to try to ease their fears about the coming season. National Fishermen, an industry tabloid, called it a “stakeholders” meeting.
Reporter Emilie Spring said the meeting was convened to discuss “the biggest issue the (Cordova) group has faced post-Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the locals are clearly anxious about how to take action.
“‘We welcome that fishermen have a special knowledge of how the fishery is occurring that management does not,’ said Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten. ‘And we need an efficient way to collect that information.'”
A hundred miles north of Cordova in the even smaller community of Copper Center, population 328, Glenn McDowell, the owner and operator at Klutina Salmon Charters was wishing someone would have met with him.
McDowell runs salmon charters on the Klutina River, a major Copper River tributary. King salmon are, or were, a big part of his business. The state didn’t just take a bite out of that business this year, it shut it down.
Nobody bothered to get in touch with McDowell before or after. He said he heard a rumor a closure was coming, called the area fisheries biologist in the regional hub of Glennallen, and was told he was out of business for the season.
“There is no public process,” he said in a text. “I was never asked how this decision might affect my business and the businesses in the area.￼”
Rod Arno, the executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council, the state’s largest outdoor organization, said his interaction with the state regarding the Copper River amounted to “zero.
“The only thing Cotten said to me at the board meeting deciding whether or not to take up the Fairbanks Advisory Committee petition was that it ‘looked like I’d been out in the sun’.”
The Fairbanks group asked the state Board of Fisheries, the entity charged with setting state fishing regulations, to review Cotten’s emergency decision to give most of the Copper River king harvest to commercial fishermen and totally shut out dipnetters and anglers. Cotten rejected the committee’s request, saying there was no emergency.
Two board members then brought the matter to the full board which voted 4-3 against considering the situation.
As the fortunes of Copper River sockeye have gone up, boosted in part by a hatchery on the Gulkana River, the fortunes of Copper River kings have gone down.
Almost 69,000 kings were harvested in the Cordova fishery in 1998 and thousands more were caught by anglers that year. Last year, the total run of kings measured 29,109 – less than half the catch from almost three decades back.
The commercial fishery caught 13,001 of those 29,109. Only an estimated 16,009 made it into the river.
“After upriver fisheries harvests are subtracted, the total spawning escapement estimate will likely be close to half of the lower bound spawning escapement goal of 24,000,” state fisheries managers reported.
The lack of kings on the spawning grounds is part of a continuing trend.
The “in-river runs of salmon in 2012, 2013, and 2014 were the three highest runs since the sonar (sonar fish counter) was installed at Miles Lake,” managers told the fish board in 2014. “(But) the Chinook salmon components of these runs were the lowest three ever in the Copper River.”
The Copper River run is compromised of a complex mixed of king salmon from the Chistochina, Tonsina, Klutina, Tazlina, Gulkana and other rivers, and sockeye salmon bound for those streams and upriver in the Copper almost to Canada.
The difficulties of managing mixed-stock salmon fisheries are well documented. Canadian biologists Stuart Nelson and Bruce Turris summarized them nicely in a 2004 report on British Columbia fisheries for the Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council:
“(Fisheries and Oceans Canada) faces a dilemma when confronted with mixed stock fisheries: if management focuses on optimal harvesting of strong stocks, weak stocks will be depleted (and possibly extinguished); if management focuses on weak stock sustainability or rebuilding, then valuable fishing opportunities on strong stocks must be forgone.”
This is exactly the problem fisheries managers for the state of Alaska now face, and there are only so many ways to deal with the problem. The Canadian experience is what Cordova fishermen are living.
“A mobile, efficient fleet was now applying heavy pressure to mixed stocks in a variety of coastal areas,” Nelson and Turris wrote. “The unmanageability of this situation, and in particular, the potential for harm to less abundant stocks, became apparent. Commercial fishery openings became shorter, less frequent, and unable to provide sufficient information to assess run size.
“We do not see the business environment facing commercial fishery participants getting easier, or current challenges abating. If anything, the constraints upon the fleet will further tighten.
“Commercial salmon fishery participants hoping for, or waiting for, a return to the fishery of old, will be disappointed. Selective fishing and precautionary management are not fads. Improving stock abundance will not trigger a return to large-scale mixed stock fisheries. In the face of an unflinching conservation mandate, the fleet must fundamentally change its philosophy and practices. Many commercial salmon fishery participants have recognized this reality, a few have embraced it, while others resist it.”
In Cordova, the resistance is strong.