Whole, headed and gutted Copper River sockeye salmon going for $159.96 per fish in Seattle earlier this week might have looked badly over-priced to Alaskans, but that was then.
This is now: The return of sockeyes to Copper is this year looking so bad that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game eliminated today’s scheduled opening of the commercial fishery.
Most Lower fish markets are already reporting both Copper River reds and Chinook out-of-stock.
The reason? The dismal catch to date.
After the Monday opening, the entire catch for the season was less than 6,000 fish. .By this time last year – a good but far from great year – Cordova-based commercial fishermen had already landed about six times as many sockeye.
Those catches came at a time when there was near panic about a forecast weak run of Chinook salmon. The forecast turned out to be wrong.
The appearance of a weak sockeye run to the Copper this year could also turn out to be wrong, but at the moment things aren’t looking good. Along with the dismal early catch and the closure of a regular fishing period – a sign state fishery managers are seriously worried – there’s an upriver, fish-counting sonar that’s barely clicking.
Monday was the biggest day of the year so far at the sonar with 532 fish going past. The projected daily goal for the day called for more than three times as many.
The cumulative count is also a third of what it should be at this point, and judging by the catch in the commercial fishery to date, a significant number of the fish going past the sonar could be Chinook, not sockeye.
More than 40 percent of the commercial catch to date has been comprised of Chinook, or king samon as Alaska more often call them. Those fish are going for $74.99 per pound in Seattle.
As with sockeye, supply is already a problem. The Copper is a mixed stock fishery, meaning that the commercial openings are either open for both kings and sockeyes, or closed for both.
The preseason forecast called for a total return of about 1.9 million sockeye and 43,000 Chinook, but forecasting salmon returns is a far from an exact science.