So many kings

chinook pacific northwest national laboratory

Chinook salmon/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory photo

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.






37 replies »

  1. Craig,
    Out of the 536 or so commercial permit holders…
    How many are full time Alaskans (like spend winter here)?
    Also, does the state of Alaska receive money annually from those permits (like personal use and sport fishing)
    or does that money just exchange hands between the affluent parties of interest when a permit is sold?
    Obviously, the state is receiving taxes at some level of the commercial harvest, process and sale of Kings.

    • While I don’t know about resident vs. nonresident fishers, Steve, the state does require annual fees for both vessel licenses and permit fishing. If the permit is not fished, then a fee is not required. This permit fee is greater for nonresidents but not by a significant amount (due to court decision some years ago). These fees differ by fishing area, with those areas having greater permit values having larger annual permit fishing fees. I don’t recall the exact wording for those permit fishing fees.

    • quick answer? 1.) hard to say. officially, at last report, about 75 percent of permits were held by Alaska residents, but as in the sport fisheries, there appear to be a significant number of “residents” living Outside or somehow squeezing into a P.O. Box and thus defining the extreme of the new “little house” craze. 2.) yes, but they vary greatly from the $3,000 fee for a longliner over 90 feet down to $75 for a Cook Inlet set netter. resident crew members need a $60 annual license, a non-resident a $277 license, wherever they work. the state gets nothing out of the sales or leases of permits. 3.) salmon exporters pay a fisheries business tax that brought in a $44.2M last year; fishermen pay a landing tax that brought in another $13.4M. the Copper River revenue would be a small part of that total of $57.6M total. the UFA has it all nicely compiled here:

      • Thanks for all that info…it helps paint the larger economic picture in our state fisheries.
        Also, I was thinking how the state of Alaska makes revenue off of all the loans it issues to commercial fishermen or women, whom are Alaskan residents for more than 2 years….these loans are for vessels and permits (so quite a large amount of capital invested here by the state).

        Maybe an audit of the system (and residency requirements) with more stringent guidelines (like you must be eligible for a PFD to be eligible for discounted annual fees) …would thin out the herd and help generate more revenue for the state…not that it appears the fisheries are short on generating revenue….at $57.6M total, I can see why the scales are tipped away from the rural subsistence consumers.

      • The UFA document you link to has the total state revenue (without including the low interest loan fees) at 250 million in taxes and fees paid by the fishing industry (some is allocated back to “communities and local governments”)…
        The most startling of all state taxes to the fleet is the (Salmon Enhancement Tax at 8.5 million a year) that appears like text right out of a page from “Brave New World”.

      • why is the salmon enhancement tax startling? the enhancers bring in a lot more money now – $24M on cost recovery. and a sizable chunk of the money in total is given back as spending on salmon marketing or hatcheries. the federal taxes are a whole other issue. suffice to say that compared to the oil industry, fishing pays little. a study done for ASMI concluded the fish contribute more to the PNW economy than to the Alaska economy. but, then again, we’re really just a Seattle colony.

      • You are starting to get the hang of it Mavo except for the “grossly”. And your preference doesn’t give a hint at whom was negligent (assuming anyone was). Do you have a culprit in mind (assuming you can speak for Craig)?

  2. Thanks Craig for standing up for the fish. I remember BOF chairman Jensen stating in committee hearing this year on his conformation hearings, ” i am all about fish first” Same for Ruffner, during his hearings. But it was not about “fish first” when they both denied Fairbanks Fish & Game Advisory Committee’s Emergency Petition. When 3 out of the 5 fishery’s had E.O.’s at that time this year.
    Should we not manage for upper end SEG instead of barely or not even making SEG? uhm…

  3. The problem Craig is ypu talk about Copper River Commercial Fisherman like you were one. My guess is that you have never been to Softuk… You really do not understand the sacrifices we have made in the last ten years. You look at a piece of paper and then want to tell everyone about it. Do me a favor… look at the weather forcast for Monday. East winds 30 knots seas 14 feet. I have a spot reserved for you on my little boat. I am going out because i have kids to feed and bills to pay…. is that isn’t subsistence than nothing is….

    • Thomas: i empathize. i happen to work in a business facing a lot more economic challenges than yours. but this isn’t about you. at the end of the day, it’s about the fish. if this king run is overfished again, as it was last year, we started a downward spiral in which you lose big in the future. it’s the classic tragedy of the commons. and sad to say, what you’re doing isn’t subsistence. we live in a state so screwed up that we don’t define things as “subsistence” unless we take the value out of them. i’d suggest a look at some of the other fisheries around the state. out Bethel way, they’ve taken the most valuable resource they have in the region – king salmon – and banned its commercial harvest to protect “subsistence.” at some point, if we don’t put enough kings in Copper River, one of upriver “subsistence” fishermen is sure to sue; the feds are sure to get involved; and there’s almost certain to be some sort of early-season quote set for Chinook to make sure “subsistence” fishermen get their share. then you’ll have a fisheries management nightmare.

      • I didn’t see “subsistence” in quotes in any of these pieces, despite the fact that the only “subsistence” fisheries you’ve been referring to as having been restricted are state subsistence users – most of whom travel from urban areas to “subsist” off these runs. Federal subsistence – “subsistence” for folks who live in the area – has barely been restricted at all, yet I’ve not read you spell this out anywhere in these pieces. Seems like an important fact to clarify, just like the fact that fishwheel users can keep as many kings as they want so long as they stay below their permitted limit of salmon.

  4. This is exactly what you have been told, by many of us “uneducated Commie fisherman” was going to happen. We are still held out of the inside fishery and forced to fish in the Gulf. So how many Kings are going to be lifted out of Spawning areas by “unattended” fishwheels. You do realize that is a much bigger threat to the future of the King Salmon than the INTENSELY managed commercial fleet. Don’t you? If you don’t then you really don’t know anything about the “fish” you say are your main concern. Randy never said anything about pushing Chinook stock into “stock of concern”. Those were your words, Like many you have spewd across social media. BULLSHIT BY CRAIG!!!

    • you need to get an education in the upriver fisheries. there aren’t any fishwheels spinning in spawning areas. they’re spinning in that pipeline of glacial slurry called the Copper River. and i never said Randy said anything. i posed a question: do you want to risk pushing Chinook stocks so low they become a stock of concern. this is a simple math problem. total run – dead fish = what’s left to spawn. it doesn’t matter who does the killing or where. the equation doesn’t change. so go look at the numbers, see who does the killing and where, and do the math.

    • I hear the spawning bed comment way too much. Any fish killed before getting to the spawning beds has not been allowed the chance to spawn. Any person that kills a fish has stopped it from being able to spawn. Just because one user is further from the beds than another doesn’t give them more right to kill. It doesn’t matter where the first fish are taken, ocean, river or spawning beds, as long as the the SEG is made. Escapement means escaping the human factor.

      • A Cordova gillnetter named Stan Samuelson had long advocated against allowing sports fishermen to fish for king salmon when they were on their spawning beds. Most of those fishermen were doing a catch and release thing and probably thought their bright red 40 lb. king salmon held up for pictures to send home would just go back to its job of spawning successfully after it was thrown back.
        Now I know Commie here is talking about killing salmon (and what those rights to kill are) but the idea of taking a king salmon on its spawning bed is not something that you would choose for eating IMO. However, the idea of releasing that salmon and thinking its going to just go about its spawning as if nothing had happened is mostly BS.
        Whatever other ideas that Commie has up his sleeve, we can be assured that he will never end up on the B of F.

      • It doesn’t matter how many fish are caught and released or caught and killed or tangled and drop out or where any of these activities happen. What matters is the department take into consideration all user groups and the way they use the resource and allow enough fish to make it through all of the users to spawn. A net killing and maiming is no different than a rod and reel doing the same thing. The idea that it is ok to beat up the fish until they reach a certain point and then all of a sudden they need protection doesn’t make the most sense. Different users use the fish in different ways. The point is to make them available to all users to be utilized in any way the law allows. If catching a red colored fish and taking a picture then releasing it is legal then obviously the department believes it won’t hurt the overall run just like they believe all the other ways fish are used won’t hurt the run if enough are allowed in the river. It’s basic math and common sense.

      • Well Commie, Stan was clearly trying to drum up support to get a law against fishing for kings on their nests-unsuccessfully, so far. And the numbers of fish harassed in this way, so far, haven’t been enough of a concern for Department to change the law although I think most have some problems with the picture taking, etc. Also, there is some issues with the “playing with food” idea about catch and release fishing, in general. This all comes down to the numbers, as you’ve pointed out, but these nests are the final point and there is no way to fix a problem here if too many of them (nests) are violated IMO. Further, the point here is relative to the harvest of these fish and your idea of “beating up these fish” is getting pretty far afield.
        It would be nice if the information was available to give the proper amount of escapement for each of the fisheries involved but we all know this is not the case and most likely won’t improve much with budget cutting in the future.

      • A couple more tiresome cliches. A rod and reel harassing fish. Fish are harassed from the moment the eggs are laid by birds and other fish. Then after hatching they are on the run their entire life. Birds and other fish while trying to get big enough to make it to the ocean. Then while in the ocean they are chased nonstop everyday for years by seals, sea lions, whales etc. And on their way back in the river they need to run the gauntlet of 500 plus nets and boats, fish wheels poking holes in their bodies tagging them, another set of fish wheels flopping them on the deck, dip netters, bears and plenty of other types of harassment along the way. (I know that’s common knowledge but for those that do not know or think about it I’m happy to educate.) But to somehow suggest the rod and reel is the most detrimental type is not a very strong argument. In fact every other form of harassment intends to do harm to the fish while the catch and release rod and reel intends just the opposite and hopes the fish continues on their life cycle. So as you can see the fish are certainly beat up all along the way and BTW I didn’t say anything about violating spawning beds.

      • “It doesn’t matter where the first fish are taken, ocean, river or spawning beds,..” Here are your own words, Commie.
        So you don’t use the term “violate” but we get the idea, just the same. And “..hopes the fish continues on their life cycle.” is just what your arguments are based on “hope,” IMO.

  5. Perhaps we should focus on how best to count King escapement for both good years and bad years and manage based on abundance rather than an equation of computer driven numbers that really don’t have much meaning. The Sports division never should have pushed for these closures since there was plenty of time before the Kings reached the upper river to make that announcement. How accurate are the numbers of last season that show such a dismal return? Feels like management is working in the dark and forced to manage based on emotion and politics.

    • Danny: “The Sports Division never should have pushed for these closures”? who says sport fish pushed for anything? i can’t find anyone who says the sport fish pushed for closures. all i can find is sport fish doing the opposite. close the PU; start with C&R in the sport fisheries; let businesses who’ve already booked clients at least be able to fish even if they can’t keep fish. this appears to all have been decided at the top.
      the numbers from last year are pretty good. and the trend line in is undeniable. go look at the blue lines:

      • Would love some explanation here. That closure literally had Sportfish division written on it.

  6. Its not a publicity stunt it’s a Hail Mary pass to the comm fisherman. Without revising their forecast, and thereby being forced to allow subsistence and sport fishing upstream, ADF&G would be forced to shut down the commercial red salmon harvest.

    • Doug: i’m not sure the department would have been “forced” to shut down the sockeye harvest because of the king salmon by-catch, but things certainly would have gotten ugly. this does give them some protection from a subsistence lawsuit. they’ve certainly made a public relations mess of things, but maybe the Department was so afraid of the push back from Cordova fishermen that it had to create a crisis before it had the nerve to impose the early season restrictions: a late start, expanded closed areas, and shorter periods.

  7. Trust that everything will be alright. Really?
    For the sake of the Copper River kings I hope these reversal in closures isn’t just a publicity stunt.

    • Craig, can you show me anywhere that says “subsistence” means…. King salmon ? I seem to remember ,as a child… subsistence meant surviving I have been catching some of your bullshit through “social media” and it seems like you may have an agenda. Perhaps you are using this forum to push someones views either for political gain or maybe bias??any comments??

      • did you miss everything that went on in Western Alaska a few years ago? i sat through the Kuskokwim trials in Bethel and more than once thought “why can’t they eat chum or sockeye or coho” given the depressed state of Chinook here? the court and federal ‘crat view was that the subsistence priority provides for a species by species priority. go upstream and ask the folks at Ahtna why they can’t eat black bears instead of moose. i’m sure they’ll give you an earful.
        i do have an agenda. i think our resources should be managed wisely. Copper River Chinook stocks have been in decline for a long time. they were overfished badly last year. if Moffitt’s forecast is anywhere near close, we run the risk of that happening again this year. i’m not pushing anyone’s agenda, but i am pushing the fishes’ agenda. we have SEGs for a reason.
        Copper River Chinooks have been in decline for a decade. returns used to number 65,000 to close to 100,000. we were down to 27,000 last year and after harvests we were about half of the SEG in-river. it doesn’t take many years like that, and you’ve got a depressed run.
        i take it your a commercial fishermen. go look at the trend lines. Chinook harvests have been on a gradually downward path since the 1990s. the commercial fleet caught 70,000 or so in 1998. now you catch a tiny fraction of that. keep missing escapements and that becomes the norm.
        so is your bullshit to push Copper River Chinook into “stock of concern” status so the feds can come in and manage the Copper the way they’ve come in and managed the Kusko? you know what happened to the commercial fishery on the Kusko right?

      • My only complaint here is in the rhetoric being used. Specifically, Craig, the term “badly overfished” in the article and then “overfished badly” in your comment here. I think we all know what the term overfished means-could you throw us a bone here and help us out on what adding the term “badly” does to the conversation???

      • randy: good point. it’s a less than precise word. “badly: to a great or serious degree.” when you only get half the escapement, i would consider that missed to a “a great or serious degree.” last year was different than 2014 with its 20,709. when you get only 84 percent escapement, you’ve overfished, but not badly. shouldn’t have happened, but at least it’s NOT badly overfished. last year, i think badly is fair. another badly this year with 2014 and 2016 already underescaped would be truly badly. just as 2010 (16,771) was badly.

      • Correct me, if I’m wrong here Craig, but your definition of “badly” refers to its being used as an adverb-along the lines of wanting something “badly”. However your using it as an adjective describing the noun “overfishing.”
        Give it another try!

      • I should have said the noun “overfished.” Anyway, to stop beating this dead horse, I can accept your idea of overfishing “to a great or serious degree.”

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