The Copper River commercial salmon fishery ended Tuesday almost 2,000 Chinook over the 5,000-salmon threshold the Alaska Department of Fish and Game set as the acceptable harvest for 2017, and the fishing season has only begun.
Steve Moffitt was at the time reported to be hiking somewhere along the Appalachian Trail on the East Coast of North America some 4,500 miles southeast of the tiny port, community of Cordova on the West Coast not far from the mouth of the Copper.
Who the hell is Steve Moffitt?
He’s the commercial fisheries biologist who penned a bombshell forecast calling for the return of but 29,000 king salmon, as Alaskans most often call Chinook, to the Copper River this year. He then promptly retired, leaving behind what has now become Alaska’s most watched fishery for a number of reasons:
- Copper River king and sockeye salmon are the 49th state’s most valuable fish. The threat of scarcity has made them only more valuable. Undercurrent News, an industry trade publication, labeled 2017 prices “ridiculous.” It reported headed and gutted kings going for $20 to $25 per pound in Seattle.
- The Copper supports the first big run of kings to hit fresh water in Alaska and thus offers an early indication of what sort of returns might be expected elsewhere in a state where the biggest of the five species of Pacific salmon has been struggling for years for unknown reasons.
- The politics of Alaska salmon allocation is always contentious and has only become more so since the state ordered in-river sport and personal-use fisheries for kings closed on the basis of Moffitt’s forecast, restricted subsistence fishermen to only two kings for the season, and said it planned to split the allowable harvest between the commercial and subsistence fisheries with the former getting 3,500 of a 5,000-fish harvest limit, later 4,000, only to have any idea of a limit vanish beneath the volume of the actual catch.
- And if all of that weren’t enough, the issue is swimming toward federal waters at a time when President Donald Trump’s new Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, is on his first Alaska tour. A federal law unique to the 49th state gives rural Alaskans a subsistence priority on the harvest of fish and wildlife. Federal officials only days ago announced they were taking over management of king salmon on the lower and middle Kuskowim River in Western Alaska. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “has to take over the fishery in times of low abundance to ensure that local people get subsistence priority,” KYUK in Bethel reported.
Moffitt set the Copper king run at low abundance just before he left Cordova. Best to get out of Dodge when what has been going so good for so long starts to look like it might go bad, though it’s possible things aren’t going as bad as they might look.
More on that later.
Years of experience
Moffitt spent most of his professional career as a fisheries research biologist in the small community at the south entrance to Prince William Sound watching catches of Alaska’s most iconic salmon brand grow and grow and grow.
Copper River harvests that never topped 1 million in the decades prior to 1981 reached close to 2.1 million by 2014.
“The sockeye salmon harvest of 2.07 million fish was more than 1.5 times the previous 10-year harvest average of 1.32 million sockeye salmon,” the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that year reported. “The overall commercial sockeye salmon harvest from the Copper River District was the third largest harvest in the history of the fishery.”
There were hints of a problem by then.
“The total commercial Chinook salmon harvest in 2014 was 9,630, below the 10-year (2004-2013) average harvest of 21,200,” the state noted, but the next year, 2015, marked an apparent turn around. The commercial catch of Chinook climbed back up to 22,500 – despite a dismal preseason forecast – and the sockeye catch came in at 1.75 million, still well above the 10-year average.
And then came the disaster of 2016 with its harvest of 1.62 million sockeye, which was good; a catch of 13,100 Chinook, which was well below the 10-year average; and a failure to meet spawning goals in a management disaster of epic proportions.
In the wake of this disaster, Moffitt, who’d been monitoring Copper River/Prince William Sound salmon fisheries for decades, read the tea leafs for 2017 (fisheries management is far from an exact science) and forecast a return of 1.8 million sockeye – low, but still big enough to provide for a harvest of more than 1 million fish after spawning needs were met – and those 29,000 Chinook.
As soon as the forecast came out, both fishermen and fishery managers knew they had a problem. Copper River Chinook are largely by-catch in the sockeye fishery. It is impossible to catch the latter without catching some of the former.
Still, Fish and Game biologists figured they could hold the harvest down with time and area restrictions on the more than 500 drift gillnetters permitted to fish the ocean off the mouth of the Copper.
As it turns out, they couldn’t. From the first opening of the fishery on May 18 through Monday, more kings than expected were caught.
A good thing?
The big catches aren’t necessarily bad. They could be a harbinger of a much larger than forecast return of kings. Moffitt’s forecasts have missed before. His 2015 forecast of 35,500 was only about three-fifths of the eventual return of 56,174. On the other hand, the 2014 return was only 57 percent of the forecast return, and the 2016 return was only 46 percent of the forecast.
None of which is making the fisheries management job easier for the people who followed in Moffitt’s footsteps.
The situation is simpler for commercial fishermen. They are convinced the large, early catches of Chinook are a clear sign the run this year is much larger than Moffitt predicted.
In the short-term, of course, they only stand to gain from that conclusion. The stronger the run, the more fishing time they are given. The more fishing time they are given, the more fish they catch. The more fish they catch, the more money they make.
Bigger catches might mean smaller runs in the future because of low numbers of spawners, but if you’ve got boat payments to make to stay in business, this year matters a lot more than next year.
So far, state fisheries biologists have reluctantly gone along with the argument that the big catches equal more than expected numbers of fish.
Harvest information “continues to provide a preliminary indication of above anticipated king salmon abundance,” managers said in a Saturday press release announcing the Monday, commercial fishery opening. But fishery managers have closed areas where the most kings are traditionally caught, and they’ve shortened fishing periods to try to protect those fish.
The closures, some fisherman argue, have made the fishery more dangerous and in one case potentially deadly. Meanwhile, the growing king catch has heightened tensions between commercial fishermen and in-river salmon harvesters.
The 2,000-king catch on Monday underlined the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the fishery.
State managers argue they need to keep upriver fisheries tightly restricted or totally closed to protect every fish because of the weak run while justifying continued and sizeable harvests in the commercial catch off the mouth of the river by citing that “preliminary indication of above anticipated king salmon abundance.”
The seeming hypocrisy doesn’t look good to in-river users.
As subsistence fisherman Mike Tinker from Fairbanks noted in a weekend letter to Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten, the increased catch in the commercial fishery “now far exceeds the number that would have been ‘saved'” by the in-river restrictions.
Tinker asked Cotten to at least relax a standard that will require subsistence fishwheels be “closely attended” whenever running so that kings can be safely released unharmed. Subsistence fishermen consider the regulation onerous given they might catch only a few kings per day, if that.
“In my family, the elders fish so the younger family can stay on the job. The restrictions from the EO (emergency order restriction) will make it impossible to catch our fish,” Tinker wrote. ” Recall, the average subsistence permit catches 60 fish a year. Sockeye may enter the river in pulses but by the time they maneuver through the steep fast water canyons and get up into the Copper Basin where the fishwheels are located they are stretched out into a thin line. We catch them a few a day and mostly at night. This is not the Yukon where even at Eagle (near the Canadian border) a fishwheel can catch 3,000 chum in a week.”
There have been ongoing talks about relaxing in-river regulations, according to people involved in the discussions at Fish and Game. But there are dangers there as well.
If Moffitt’s forecast is right, the king run has already been overfished in the commercial fishery, and there is no way to avoid overfishing it more in order to maintain a commercial catch of plentiful sockeye salmon.
If this is the actual case – or if Moffitt’s forecast is actually low as it has been in three out of the last four years – allowing in-river fisheries to kill even more kings would make a bad situation worse.
And the biggest problem of all is that fisheries managers really don’t know what they have for a return. A sonar counter that can’t tell a sockeye from a Chinook took a big tick up on Friday when more than 38,000 fish hit the river.
Some took that as a sign a lot of fish were going to escape into the Copper because of the so far limited fishing – only 43 hours in four openings since May 18. The expectation was that numbers would just keep going up, but instead they started falling and kept falling.
The Monday count was back down to 14,556, which was within about a thousand fish of the perfect-world scenario of 13,447 for the day. Likewise, some king salmon counting fish wheels upstream from the sonar, which had started ticking upward the day after the elevated sonar counts, began tracking downward.
Neither the sonar nor the fish wheels provide a solid account of how many kings are entering the river, but they do provide hints at run strength. The hints, unfortunately, made it harder, not easier, to sort this puzzle.
Somewhere on the Appalachian Trail, Moffitt has to be happy he isn’t in Cordova.