With annual returns of prized Chinook salmon to Alaska’s fabled Copper River creeping steadily downward, the state Board of Fisheries is meeting in Valdez to consider reducing the spawning goal for the river system that drains 24,000-square-miles of Eastern Alaska, an area nearly the size of Maine.
Fisheries biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game admit they have no idea of how many Chinook the Copper Basin should be able to support, but they say the best science of the day would indicate a spawning goal of 18,500 of the big fish is enough.
That is 5,500 Chinook below the existing goal of 24,000, and not far above the estimate of 14,000 Chinook returning to one Copper River tributary – the Gulkana River – in the 1990s. A later radio-tagging study concluded the Gulkana, the most popular sport-fishing stream in the region, is the spawning ground for about two of every 10 Copper Chinook, the largest of the Pacific salmon most Alaskans know simply as kings.
A 20 percent share of a return of 18,500 Copper kings would earmark 3,700 fish for the Gulkana, but personal use and subsistence fisheries downstream on the Copper River would catch some before they reached the river. How many of the 3,700 they might catch is unknown, but the figure is likely in the hundreds.
How many spawners the Gulkana needs to maintain the popular sport fishery there is another unknown. The state fishery biologists that set the goal for the Copper said they didn’t have enough data to set a goal for the Gulkana.
The state started counting king salmon from a fish spotting tower along the Gulkana in 2002. Only once in the next five years did the number of spawners drop below 3,700.
And then it started to slide. There was a good return of fish here and there – 3,900 made it back in 2013 – but in most of the years from 2008 on, fewer than 3,000 fish made it past the tower.
The entire Copper River was at the same time cycling downward.
Grading on a curve
Fish and Game, in its report to the Board of Fish, said it put together a committee to study the decline and how many fish the state should allow to “escape” the commercial drift gillnet fishery off the mouth of the river at the southern edge of Prince William Sound.
“The committee evaluated stock-recruit data, the percentile approach, and habitat-based models as means of setting an escapement goal,” Fish and Game’s written report says. “During this review a state-space model that simultaneously reconstructs runs and fits a spawner-recruit model to estimate total return, escapement, and recruitment of Copper River Chinook salmon from 1980 to 2016 was completed. The model uses harvest, age composition, and relative and absolute measures of in-river run abundance to estimate parameters that describe the production relationship for this stock.”
State fisheries biologist took all the data they had for the past 36 years, did a lot of math and decided “18,595 Copper River Chinook salmon has an 85 percent probability of achieving 90 percent MSY (maximum sustained yield).” The high probability of returns close to MSY represents the best deal for the Cordova-based commercial fishery off the mouth of the river.
Copper River kings are the most valuable salmon in the state, and given average ocean survival for young fish going to sea, the commercial salmon fishery benefits greatly from the best return per spawner. And state fishery managers say their math indicates the best gamble is on a higher return per spawner with a lower number of spawners in-river.
This math is simple: If the return per spawner is 3-to-1, commercial fishermen can catch two fish. If the number drops to 2-to-1, they only get one. Thus a spawning escapement of 20,000 that produces at 3-to-1 beats an escapement of 30,000 that produces at 2-to-1.
(3 X 20,000 = 60,000 – 20,000 spawners = 40,000 to catch; 2 x 30,000 = 60,000 – 30,000 spawners = 30,000 to catch.)
None of this math has gone over well with in-river fishermen expected to make do with Copper River leftovers. Sport, subsistence and personal-use fishermen have all objected to the new spawning goal, but they are bit players.
The primary king-salmon sport fisheries on the Gulkana, just north of Glennallen on the Richardson Highway, and the Klutina River just south of the regional hub, have been fading for years because of lack of fish.
“An estimated 327 (kings) were harvested by sport fishermen” in 2016, Fish and Game reported to the Board. The sport catch was less than half of the “homepack” harvest reported by commercial gillnetters who kept some kings instead of selling them.
The approximatley 520 Cordova-based gillnetters sold 12,300 in 2016, according to state figures. And their catch increased to 13,100 this year despite onerous early season restrictions placed on the commercial fishery because of a dire king salmon forecast.
The forecast for a harvest of less than 5,000 did have an upside. It drove early seasons price through the roof. Copper River kings were at one point going for $55.99 a pound in Seattle.
The sport catch for 2017 is not yet available, but is expected to be above 2016. The sport fishery, which was closed before the first kings returned because it is the easiest fishery for Fish and Game to close to protect weak runs, was reopened on June 3 after early commercial catches indicated more Copper River kings than expected.
Restrictions on all in-river fisheries were eventually relaxed. Harvest numbers aren’t yet available for the subsistence Chinook fishery which caught about 2,500 kings in 2016 or the personal-use dipnet fishery which caught about 700. But both are expected to have done better than in 2016 despite the personal-use fishery opening with a ban on king harvests, and the subsistence season opening on strict limits.
The limits on subsistence catches were lifted along with the sport fishing closure, and despite increased in-river fishing, state fisheries biologists said a lot of kings made it to the spawning beds.
By the time fall rolled around, what was supposed to have been a disaster of a Chinook season looked pretty good:
- The goal of getting at least 24,000 kings through the commercial fishery and into the river to seed the spawning beds had been met.
- The commercial fishery, which had been expected to share a 5,000-Chinook limit with the subsistence fishery, had caught about two and a half times that many fish and the threat of Copper River king shortage had caused the price of the fish to skyrocket.
- The supposedly closed-for-the-summer sport fishery opened earlier than anyone could have hoped.
- And subsistence fishermen and personal-use fishermen appeared to have had a decent season.
Everyone should have been happy, but no one is.
Commercial fishermen, who blamed restrictive fishing regulations on killing one of their own during an early season marred by bad weather, want more fishing time behind barrier islands off the mouth of the river. The islands protect fishermen from the sort of Gulf of Alaska surf which contributed to the death of 69-year-old Mick Johns.
The Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory wants to tighten down the restriction on inside waters and move gillnetters offshore from the barrier-island beaches. The Central Alaska city has long considered the Copper River, about 300 miles to the southeast, its go-to salmon fishery.
“When commercial drift gillnets are fished in deeper waters outside the barrier islands,” the Fairbanks proposal notes, “king salmon are more likely to escape harvest than they are in the shallow waters inside the barrier islands.”
The Fairbanks committee and the Cordova District Fishermen United, interestingly enough, see the facts of the situation almost identically. Their proposals echo each other in observing that “from 2008–2016, during the current period of reduced productivity, average Copper River District commercial king salmon harvest was approximately 13,600 fish, and average combined subsistence, sport, and personal use harvests were 5,100 fish. During this time, king salmon spawning escapement ranged from 11,900–32,500, with an average escapement of approximately 24,700,” and in seven out of 10 years the spawning goal of 24,000 was met.
Where they disagree is on what this means.
The commercial fishermen note that from 2002 to 2007 they harvested an average 39,000 kings, while the combined subsistence, sport, and personal use harvests totaled 10,300. The don’t think its fair their catch is now down by almost two-thirds while the catch of in-river users has dropped by only about half.
And they don’t much like the fact that in some recent years Fish and Game has allowed in excess of 8,000 kings above the spawning goal to escape into the river. They like the new, lower escapement of 18,500 kings.
In-river users from the Copper River basin, Fairbanks and Anchorage don’t like the lower goal at all. They point to the food security of thousands of Alaskans who harvest salmon with dipnets or fish wheels to fill their freezers for the winter, and to a sport fishery with a plummeting participation rate in a part of the state with little of an economy but tourism.
According to state figures, Copper Basin angling effort has been in a pretty steady decline since the late 1990s. Angler days – one angler fishing for one day – did bump up to about 180,000 in 2002, but since then effort has plummeted.
It is now down to less than half of what it was 15 years ago. The loss of anglers means less business in basin restaurants and bars, hotels and RV parks, at gas stations and convenience stories.
Participation in the personal-use dipnet fishery – a fishery limited to Alaska residents – has gone up over the same time, but state studies have shown Alaska dipnetters tend to spend far less on their fishing excursions than visiting anglers, especially those from out-of-state.
The dipnetters have been showing up in increasing numbers at the tiny, outpost community of Chitina on the Edgerton Highway in eastern Alaska for a decade. Commercial fishermen look at the steady increase in dipnet permits and worry about this growth even if the catch is still comparatively small.
Dipnetters have averaged 145,000 sockeye per year over the past decade, according to state figures. Commercial fishermen have caught an average of more than 10 times that at 1.7 million. But that doesn’t diminish their fear of an ever-growing Alaska population.
The Alaska Limited Entry Act of 1973 froze the number of commercial fisherman in time with a system that capped the number of commercial fishing permits that could be sold in the 49th state. But no law could freeze Alaska’s growth.
And no thought has ever been given to how to peacefully transition fisheries as the state continues to grow. Commercial fishermen in the isolated and fishing-dependent community of Cordova, population 2,200, are right to feel threatened by anglers, dipnetters and subsistence fishermen who want to catch more fish in the Copper Basin because the number of those people has grown and is destined to grow more.
But in-river users have an equal right to feel they deserve their “fair share” of the fish the commercial fishermen have long considered their property. The Copper River is not alone with this user conflict.
The situation is the same to the west in Cook Inlet. It might mean the fish wars that have been underway in Alaska since the 1980s are inevitable. The Fish Board is tasked with the responsiblity of mediating these disputes.
Not to mention protecting the state’s salmon from the tragedy of the commons.
Cook Inlet fishermen contend the Fish Board settled the last battle in favor of commercial interests. Whether that will be repeated in the Copper Basin remains to be seen.