A complicated and sometimes contentious Copper River salmon season is coming to an end with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game seemingly in position to declare mission accomplished.
State fishery managers are still crunching numbers, but it appears the minimum spawning goal of 24,000 Chinook salmon has been met and exceeded, state fisheries biologist Mark Somerville in Glennallen said Monday.
The only question is with the Gulkana River and what the return there means in terms of the big picture. The best science available to the state agency indicates that river has historically accounted for 20 to 25 percent of all spawners in the 24,000-square-mile Copper River drainage.
Gulkana returns this year could be a little short of that mark, raising question as to either the accuracy of the mark-recapture system being used to enumerate Copper returns or pointing to productivity problems in the popular stream that generally parallels the Richardson Highway from the Eastern Alaska highway hub of Glennallen, population 500, to the wide spot in the road known as Paxson, where the population is now reported to be down to 12.
Still, 2017 is looking way better than 2016 when fewer than 1,100 of the fish Alaskans like to call “king” passed a fish-counting station on the Gulkana. Almost three times as many passed the counting station this year, and another 1,000 or so are believed be spawning downstream from there.
It was something of a spectacular return in a season that started with dire concerns about the biggest and most-prized of Copper River salmon. A state forecast called for a total return of only 29,000 of the big fish.
At that level, the potential harvest available for commercial, subsistence, personal use and sport fisheries stood at just 4,000 fish.
Time to panic
Long before the first of those fish arrived back in Alaska waters, state fishery managers took their first big management step and announced a season-long ban on angling in the entirety of the Copper River drainage. That move looked destined to gut the area’s tourist season.
Then state officials started making plans for how to limit commercial harvests off the mouth of the river.
The latter task is not easy. The Chinook returning to the river mix in with much more plentiful sockeye salmon that are the economic bread-and-butter of the commercial fleet in the small, isolated community of Cordova, population 2,300.
Connected to the rest of the state only by ferry, Cordova is home to about 250 of the 540 fishermen with state limited-entry permits that allow them to gillnet off the mouth of the Copper River or in Prince William Sound.
Those fishermen reacted angrily when a Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee petitioned the state Board of Fisheries to ban the sale of commercially caught Copper River Chinook. The committee argued that given the indiscriminate nature of gillnets – the nets catch any fish that hits them and can be ensnared by gills or nose – the only way to discourage commercial fishermen from targeting the prized catch this year was to render it worthless.
Commercial fishermen countered that it was craziness to render worthless one of the state’s most valuable commodities. Even though troll-caught kings from Alaska and Canada are now available almost year round, Copper Chinook have carved out a market niche as Alaska’s “first fish of the season.”
Smart marketing made Copper kings almost as valuable as gold. Once the Board rejected the idea of banning sales and the commercial fishing season got underway in mid-May, Copper kings started fetching $55.99 a pound in Seattle.
But the Board’s action did nothing to stop the state’s commercial fisheries managers from imposing their own restrictions on where and when the nets could go in the water.
The where became especially contentious when the prime waters for netting kings were closed.
“Young guys in debt are panicking,” United Fishermen of Alaska (UFA) president Jerry McCune said at the time. “They’ve cut off the whole inside to fishing and moved everyone offshore. You don’t catch that many kings offshore.”
The UFA is one of the most politically powerful entities in the 49th state, and its president just happened to be a Cordova-based fisherman. But state fishery managers refused to bend to pressure.
Not catching was the intent of their regulations.
Waters inside the barrier islands at the mouth of the Copper River were kept closed. Fishermen still caught fish. When they hauled in almost 2,000 Chinook during the season’s first opening on May 18, fishery managers were left wondering if they’d just made a big mistake or faced a return significantly bigger than expected.
With an expected allowable harvest of only 4,000, half had already been caught.
As it turned out, as the season progressed, everyone got lucky. The Chinook return proved to be way bigger than anyone had any reason to hope. The sport season was reopened. Personal-use dipnetters were allowed to again catch some kings. And all restrictions were lifted on the subsistence fishery.
By the time the season was done, the 450 or so commercial permit holders who fished this year had caugh more than 13,000 Chinook.
The 270,000-pound haul was about 4,000 fish shy of the 10-year average catch, but about 1,400 Chinook more than in 2016. Commercial fishermen were nonetheless unhappy. Too many fish, they thought, escaped the nets.
The official escapement, Somerville said, is still being calculated, but it looks to be in the range of 32,000 to 35,000 fish. A big, turbid glacial river that audibly grinds its way to the sea, the Copper makes counting fish difficult.
A state sonar provides a rough estimate of sockeye numbers, but it can’t count kings. So, in 1999 the state started a mark-recapture program using a pair of fish wheels in the lower river. The project is now run by the Native Village of Eyak.
The fish count from the Gulkana and aerial surveys in a number of clearwater tributaries to the Copper are used to check the fish wheel estimate.
Over the years, the program has been fine tuned and is getting better, but still has a margin of error of about 25 percent. And the fish wheels only calculate how many Chinook escaped the commercial fishery.
There are still personal use, subsistence and sport fisheries upstream from the wheels waiting to kill fish.
Somerville said it will be a while before the state has all the data from those fisheries. At this point, he said, he expects an in-river harvest of 5,000 – “6,000 at the most.”
A catch of 6,000 deducated from an escapement of 32,000 would leave the number of spawners at 26,000, about 2,000 fish over the minimum goal. A smaller catch and/or a bigger escapement could boost the spawning number.
Somerville estimates a catch of 1,000 to 1,500 Chinook in the sport fishery, primarily from the Klutina and Gulkana rivers; about 1,000 Chinook in the personal-use dipnet fishery downstream from tiny community of Chitina; and about 3,000 in the subsistence fish wheel and dipnet fisheries upstream from Chitina.
Fishing effort in both the personal-use and subsistence fisheries appeared to be down this year, probably in part because the sockeye fishing in-river was never great, he said.
Only about 1,200 people picked up permits for the subsistence dipnet fishery, down from 1,300 last year, and the decline in subsistence fish wheel permits was even bigger – much bigger. The number of permits for wheels dropped from 469 to 334, Somerville added.
“We’re aging in the (Alaska) Native community,” he said. Older residents of the Copper River valley are retiring, and the younger generation isn’t as interested in taking on all the work involved in maintaining a fish wheel.
“Wheels that used to be there are not there,” Somerville said. “The were on Native corporation land, but the people from the community aren’t using wheels anymore.
“It is a really sad thing.”