This story has been updated
The Copper River commercial salmon fishery remain closed on Monday and with the return of Alaska’s pound-for-pound most valuable salmon looking a failure, most of the regions’ 535 commercial permit holders looked to have headed for Prince William Sound to fish chums.
Much of the fleet was reported to be fishing in the Esther Island area in hopes of earning some profit on $1.10 per pound chum salmon, a weak replacement for highly valued Copper kings and sockeyes.
Favored fad-fish of high-scale restaurants, Copper sockeye had a reported price on their heads of $8.50 to $9.50 per pound when the season opened, and everything looked good-to-go despite a below-average, pre-season sockeye forecast.
Alaska Airlines put on its now classic show of flying the first of the fish fresh to Seattle. And Seattle media duly turned out to report “the arrival of fresh Copper River king and sockeye salmon is a rite of spring in Seattle where the fish are prized for their flavor,” as KOMO-TV had it.
Only one problem, the fish didn’t cooperate. The king salmon, which come in the thousands were off the mouth of the Copper, but the sockeye, which come in the tens of thousands, weren’t.
About 40,000 of the latter were expected to be caught on the first opening of the fishery on May 17. The actual catch was 1,900. The next scheduled fishing period was closed.
When the fishery finally opened again on May 21, the expected catch was 80,000. Fishermen caught 3,900. The next scheduled fishing period was closed.
Fishermen are optimists. They have to be or they drive themselves mad. They put the poor fishing off to a late sockeye return. They cited colder than normal waters flowing out of a drainage the size of Maine that saw a lot of snow in the mountains over the winter.
Fishery managers are pessimists. They have to be or overly optimistic commercial fishermen will talk them into overfishing everything. They started worrying.
The May 28 opening produced a catch of 20,000 sockeye. Fishermen were buoyed by a daily harvest almost four times that of the first two periods combined. The next scheduled fishing period was closed anyway.
Fishery managers saw only a catch about a fifth of what it should have been, plus a pair of sonar counters in the river showing a serious lack of fish.
At $9.50 per pound, the smallish, 5-pound-average sockeye caught to date would be worth about $1.2 million. The high prices have helped to make up for a portion, though not all, of the loss associated with the weak run.
But prices aren’t expected to stay high much longer with a lot of other fresh Alaska salmon soon to come on the market. And there is no real sign of a big improvement in the return.
The 20,000 sockeye catch Thursday was not followed by a big burst of fish into the river on Friday or Saturday. Overall, not much changed other than the passage of a few more days with below expected numbers of fish entering the river. That just makes the situation worse.
All Copper River fishermen can do now is hope for a bit of a miracle. Salmon runs do sometimes show up late in Alaska.
Historically, however, the runs to the Copper River are either building rapidly by June 1 – either in harvest or in-river – or they are in trouble.
Some fishermen are now hoping the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corpration will help bail out their season. PWSAC forecast a return of 3.1 million chum to the Wally Noerenberg Hatchery on Esther Island.
The hatchery has reserved 656,000 fish for cost-recovery and broodstock, but that leaves almost 2.5 million for commercial fishermen to battle over. If prices hold, those fish could be worth up to $24 million.
A Whittier-based PWS drifter texted that he’d seen Cordova-based boats that never leave the Copper River flats making sets in the area Monday morning. The good news for fishermen there was that the 18,000 chums caught in the first fishery opening near the end of last week were twice the size of the local sockeye at 8.6 pounds.
Sockeye everywhere appear to be running small this year, leading to concerns about ocean food problems.
Last year a low return of king salmon was forecast to return to the Cooper River. The forecast caused a bit of chaos, and the biologists turned out to badly wrong on their projection.
Before the season began this year, a 16.5 percent below average sockeye return was forecast, but the projection of 1.7 million fish should have left 700,000 or more available to the commercial fishery.
The in-river goal for the water upstream from the gillnet fleet was set at 644,000 to 1 million. It is now looking like the river might have trouble making the bottom end of that range.
If returns continue to track Fish and Game’s pre-season projections as they have since mid-May, the in-river count as of today would come to about 283,000 sockeye. The state’s projected Saturday return, based on decades of data, predicted it as the peak day for the sockeye return.
And it was the biggest day this year.
Just shy of 10,000 sockeye made it into the river. The problem is that the daily return amounted to only about 59 percent of the almost 17,000 projected for June 2.
Still, that was an improvement. The day before the return was only 45 percent of the projection; the day before that, 51 percent.
This is how it has gone since mid-May despite the already seriously shortened commercial season and an unusually low commercial catch totaling 25,935 sockeye.
Cordova-based commercial fishing permit holders, about 20 percent of whom admit to being non-residents, aren’t the only ones who count on these Copper sockeye.
Upriver, the fish tumble into the fish wheels of Alaskan subsistence fishermen and the dipnets of personal-use fishermen, and a few get caught by rod-and-reel, many of those held by tourists who spend a lot of money to come fish Alaska.
The preseason, state management plan set aside 130,500 fish for the Alaskan-only, personal-use fishery, 77,000 for the subsistence fishery, and 15,000 for rod-and-reel sport fishermen. That, along with 20,000 in broodstock for a Gulkana River hatchery, and a minimum 360,000 for spawning needs are part of the state’s in-river goal of 644,000 to 1 million for the Copper this year.
The state’s run projection for the year is built around the lower end of that goal. It called for 127,182 sockeye in-river by Saturday. The actual count stood at 55,840.
The Copper saw an even lower return by June 2 in 2013, but that return didn’t start until May 29, and it was preceded by record or near-record catches off the mouth of the river.
By June 1, 2103, the daily return was up to 21,000 , and the commercial fishery had caught 586,000 sockeye. State fisheries managers say there is no precedent for a year like this with both the catch and the in-river return so low.
The total return – sonar-counted fish plus dead fish – by this date in 2013 was more than 630,000 fish. The combined number this year is less than 82,000.
The fish could still come, but at this point it looks like an uphill battle to meet the lower end of the in-river goal. The popular Chitina dipnet fishery, which had been scheduled to open Thursday and run through the weekend, has been reduced to a 24-hour fishery from noon Saturday through noon Sunday.
The fishery is scheduled to reopen June 11 and continue 24-hours-per-day through the rest of June, but that appears unlikely. Further restrictions are almost certain to come by emergency order this week.
Fishery managers don’t have much choice. Though the spawning goal – or escapement as it is commonly called by fishery managers and fishermen – has a range of 360,000 to 750,000, fishery managers try to shoot for at least the middle of the range for safety.
There might soon be other fishermen joining those of Cordova on the beach.
CORRECTION: An early version of this story miscalculated the number of non-residents who hold drift gillnet permits and the ex-vessel value of the potential chum catch.