Up is down

gulkana king

A radio-tagged Gulkana king salmon/Alaska Department of FIsh and Game photo

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.”

Short version?

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.)

Other users

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:

Everyone should have been happy, but no one is.

Fish wars

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.


12 replies »

  1. The 2017 CR Chinook salmon return, turned out to be an above average run. The ADF&G pre season 2017 CR Chinook forecast, was just that, a forecast. The upriver users over reacted, to the below average forecast, along with this blog. They kept it up preseason and during the prosecution of the commercial fishery, which was highly restricted, this season.

    Fast Forward to:
    BOF mtg 12/1-12/5, the majority of BOF proposals (from Fairbanks AC), were withdrawn, due to no support, along with the realization, that all CR fish users, actually had opportunity and got their fair share of the Kings in 2017. Nothing to complain about. Their arguments on OEG was flat and held no water.
    All the hysteria, helped along by forums, such as this blog, does not really help rational debate, over very serious fish issues. Sustainability is the key word, and that is what ADF&G is all about. That is also the priority in our State’s Constitution.
    So, give us all a break, let ADF&G manage our fisheries and keep doing their job, and quit your whining. It is getting old, plus very boring.

    • James: you got one thing right. the 2017 run turned out be stronger than expected. actually two things: “let ADF&G…keep doing their job.” the commercial fishery was highly restricted early on as it should have been. but even then the Gulkana, which gets a lot of the early fish, saw a mediocore return. but wait, actually you got three things right: “sustainability is the key word.” but from your post, i can’t tell if you know what that means.

      • My guess is Craig, if you are looking for something to hang your hat on as to why the Gulkana is struggling, you’ll find it in the below post by bruce gard.
        We do know that something appears to be getting to our king salmon in the ocean that appears to be a problem for most king stocks and certainly the Copper kings. For the Gulkana to experience some additional issues it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to suggest its something in-river IMO. I would personally suspect its the sport fishery that releases those big red kings, after targeting them.
        Holding them up for pictures, after fighting them, shouldn’t cause them any problems with their successful spawning, right!!!???

  2. “Cook Inlet fishermen contend the Fish Board settled the last battle in favor of commercial interests.” Hmmm, seems like an assumptive and overly generalized statement founded on misinformation. Shocking. Also shocking that Mr. First believes the only solution to this issue is to elect a new governor. I’m still waiting for someone to tell me specifically who of the 7 member BOF consistently favors commercial interests over Sport, PU, and Subsistence. I bet no one will, because the math doesn’t work. The current board is on the whole pretty level headed.

    It’s worth pointing out that ADFG does not manage for the bottom of an escapement goal range. The old single point goal of 24,000 was such due to lack of good escapement data, however that is thought to be near the long term average escapement for this drainage which has for the most part produced abundant returns over the last several decades. ADFG manages for escapements evenly distributed throughout the goal range. The most practical way to achieve that is to manage for the midpoint of the escapement goal, which is just north of 25,000 fish with the new recommended range.

    While I understand the concerns of those who feel that 18,500 Kings are too few for the large Copper drainage, nearly all of them are coming from the perspective that “Subsistence” needs of folks from Anchorage and Fairbanks are more important that the economies of coastal areas like Cordova, where the word subsistence can be used a little more honestly without quotes. No surprise that KRSA and the AOC are repping hard with the Fairbanks AC and the Chitina Dippers Ass in order to make this happen. According to them, they speak for the Kings, mmmmk….

    • Who of the 7 members you ask? You have got to be kidding. Right? At the UCI meeting, Jensen, who was in the Governor’s office shortly before the meeting voted just the opposite as he had three years earlier, claiming he had taken too many fish from the commercial fishers. In almost every case he voted in favor of commercial interests. Jeffrey did a 180 as well. Cain voted along the commercial party lines a large majority of the time. Ruffner who had promised in confirmation hearings that he would be supportive of dip net and recreational fishers went right along with the other three. Huntington reversed himself as well. Could it have been because of his recent meeting with Mallot right before the meeting? That makes five Todd Smith! And F. Johnson has replaced Jeffrey. He has consistently shown he favors commercial interests as well. He will do the same going forward. I can’t blame you for your constant support of your fishery. It is in your financial interest. And I am
      impressed about how you and the drift fleet got the Governor in your pocket by your campaign efforts on his behalf. That has certainly paid off for you. But when you claim you do not know the math about BOF supporters, and claim to be “shocked” that anyone would suggest how the math favors commercial interests, I have to call BS. Of course you do! And you are not shocked!
      And your claim that the the 24k escapement Chinook goal for the Copper is near the long term average is also disingenuous. Long term runs have been going down in the Copper as well as in many other waters, especially CI waters. All while the Dept has been using their less is more approach to Escapement Goals. 18.5 K for Copper River Chinook is so blatantly allocative and discriminatory that it is almost laughable. You have one more cycle year Todd Smith. After that there will be a new governor, new commissioner, and new faces on the BOF. Only then will the many many Alaskans, who don’t happen to have a limited entry permit, get a chance at their fair share of the resource.

      • Ok bud. Put your name on that B.S. breakdown of BOF members and I’ll keep talking. If you don’t believe me about the long term average escapement on the Copper read the damn reports.

      • Todd: i read the reports. i understand how they arrived at the number, and it makes me hugely uncomfortable. it spins heavily off a downward trend. if we continue the downward trend, one could come back another decade from now, and run the numbers again, and get an even lower BEG. and if the trend continues downward another 10 years, another lower BEG. and etc., etc., etc.
        i hate to use the phrase “common sense,” because sense is by no means common, but at some point you’ve got to ask about the problem inherent in the model. there are about 40 different Chinook spawning streams in the Copper Basin. ADF&G really has no idea as to the productivity of most of them. this might be the best science Fish and Game can up with at the moment, but it looks a lot like leeches.
        you know, the blood suckers that were supposed to balance the humors and cure people of disease. it was start of the art medicine in its day.

    • MKay,
      Then I guess you would still put quotes around “subsistence” for Ahtna – they want a goal range of 28,000 to 55,000.

      Your claim that Cordova has a more legitimate claim to subsistence than Ahtna is laughable.

      There are so many issues with subsistence in Cordova that the current regs only allow it in conjunction with commercial fishing periods.

      Why – because commercial fishermen don’t trust themselves not to cheat and sell “subsistence” fish.

      • MU, your statement “because commercial fishermen don’t trust themselves not to cheat and sell ‘subsistence’ fish” doesn’t make sense. For one reason, those fish are marked, making them unable to be marketed, and for another the subsistence fishery still takes place when the fleet is shut down for various reasons (allowing commercial guys who qualify as subsistence fishermen to participate).
        While I could only speculate on the reasons for conducting subsistence fishing during regular fishing openers (whether/not the commercial fishery is fishing), its clearly not for the reason you stated.

  3. Great article, Craig. I used to fish the Gulkana back in the early 80’s and 90’s, and the river was magic. Then they shut down the Deshka and ADFG allowed all the guides from there and the Kenai, (which was closed from overfishing) to take over the Gulkana en mass, Just like that there were so many drift and jet boats on the river tied up at every bend of the river and aggressive guides giving me the hairy eyeball as I drifted by in my canoe. No places anymore, and the river lost its wild and scenic feel. It’s never been the same. Add to that the new marketing strategy by Cordova fisherman (many of which winter out of state) with big monetary backing by Alaska Airlines to get as many kings as possible before they hit their natal rivers~ well, that was the final blow for what was a superb fishery. Really hit Fairbanks’ fisherman hard as we don’t have any close salmon fisheries like Anchorage, Hard to see how we’re ever going to get the river back with the Board of Fish being so political and the ever growing population of Sapiens wanting a piece of this amazing fishery.
    So it goes.

    • i remember the shift. there was too little discussion of the amoeboid nature of sport fisheries before those management decisions were undertaken. maybe you should suggest to the Board of Fish a drift-only fishing zone on the Gulkana. we have controlled-use areas for hunting all over the state. the Board of Fish has been far less creative in trying to create quality fisheries. i have nothing against combat fisheries. i think some of them are great. but not all sport fisheries should be the same. there’s something to be said for a diversity of opportunity.

  4. Whether what happened in Cook Inlet will happen in PWS remains to be seen? It will happen! With the current make up of the Board of Fisheries (BOF), the current Commissioner of ADF&G, and current governor, the commercial
    interests will get what they want. Period! The concept that less is more has been used regularly by the Dept when minimum escapement goals were missed for several years in a row. Instead of recommending a plan to restore the stock that was missing its goal, the Dept would lower the goal. That has happened in many waters in South Central, and indeed in the Copper River already. People in the Dept do not get rewarded for failures in management of these stocks. But instead of admitting that mgt could be improved, the biologists simply come up with their statistics that say that less spawners mean greater returns. The problem is that it is not working! Returns to every river where this theory is employed are nowhere what they were decades ago. These decisions which are made by Dept staff benefit only the commercial fishers. And cost only the recreational and dip net fishers. It is crazy discrimination that is biologically unsound and contrary to Alaska’s constitution which requires that the Fish resources be managed for the maximum benefit of Alaskans. The only way this flawed and one sided approach can be changed is with a new Governor who will appoint a Commissioner from
    outside the commercial fisheries, and appoint BOF members who will make allocation decisions consistent with our constitutional mandate. Unfortunately, that will not happen at the PWS meeting taking place this week in Valdez.

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