With the commercial catch of king salmon off the mouth of the Copper River steadily growing, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has gone all in on the idea that a preseason forecast that suggested a return of only 29,000 of the big fish was in error.
The agency on Friday announced it will lift a restriction that limited subsistence fishermen on the Copper to two fish, and open sport fisheries along the river it had ordered closed before the season even began.
The action comes amid mounting public pressure for the agency to see the annual catch of kings, or Chinook as they called elsewhere, is shared among subsistence, commercial, sport and personal-use fishermen. The subsistence fishermen, who are supposed to have a legal priority on harvest, started the season limited to two fish, and told they would get only one-fifth slice of an allowable harvest of only 5,000 kings.
That whole plan has now been ditched.
Starting tomorrow, an official announcement said, the two fish limit is gone along with a requirement subsistence fishwheel operators stand watch on their operations 24 hours per day to make sure kings be released immediately unharmed. Subsistence dipnetters, in turn, will now get an annual limit of five kings.
Starting Monday, king salmon sport fisheries in the upper Copper River drainage – primarily the Klutina and Gulkana rivers – will reopen to anglers with a bag limit of two fish for the season, although only one fish may come from any individual tributary. Bait, the most effective means of catching kings, will be allowed in the mainstem of the Copper River and portions of the Gulkana, Klutina and Tonsina rivers.
The spawning goal for the Copper remains 24,000 fish. Fish and Game at this time has no idea of how many Chinook are in the river or coming back, but the agency is proceeding on the assumption that larger than expected catches of commercial salmon off the mouth of the river indicate a stronger than expected run.
To date, the commercial fishery has caught just shy of 9,000 fish. The preseason plan called for a catch of 4,000 Chinook in that fishery with another 1,000 earmarked for subsistence fishermen.
Fish and Game offered no comment on what its plan for Chinook harvests in the personal-use dipnet fishery. The first opening of that fishery is set for Wednesday.
The dipnet fishery in the Chitina area south of Glennallen is the most popular fishery on the river. Personal-use dipnetters at this time remain banned from harvesting kings. Whether that ban will also be relaxed is unclear.
And Fish and Game says the opener announced today could easily become a closure announced tomorrow.
“On March 6, 2017 the department closed the king salmon sport and personal use fisheries of the Copper River drainage and imposed and reduced the annual limit of king salmon in the subsistence fishery in response to a preseason run forecast of only 29,000 fish and generally poor return strength since 2009,” the Fish and Game press release said. “However, greater than expected commercial harvest of king salmon during extremely limited fishing time and restricted area indicates the 2017 run of king salmon may be greater than forecast, providing potential for a harvestable surplus of king salmon above the escapement goal in the Copper River drainage. It is therefore justified to relax the preseason restrictions and provide additional harvest opportunity.
“The department will continue to monitor the 2017 Copper River king salmon run as it develops. If indicators of abundance suggest the 2017 run is weaker than current indicators suggest, the department may again take further restrictive action.”
The agency offered no hint at what it now thinks the number of returning fish. The run last year was badly overfished. The number of spawners in the river ended up being only half the goal.
This is a developing story.