Where the hell?

2016-06-26 12.47.44

A stringer of dipnet caught sockeye downstream from the McCarthy Road bridge in a normal year/Craig Medred photo

As a smattering of Alaskans armed with dipnets today headed for Chitina – a tiny community made once famous for the bumper sticker “Where the hell is Chitina” – the failing run of sockeye salmon to Alaska’s fabled Copper River ticked upward, but not nearly enough.

With commercial fishing off the mouth of the river now shut down since May 28, there is still no sign of the necessary flood of salmon into the river.

Friday looked like it might be the day. The 6 a.m. count of fish at the Miles Lake sonar stood at 3,306, the highest so far this year. But the run faded to end at 12,001 – more than 3,500 fish short of the goal for the day. That marked the 22nd straight day the return has been below the daily goal.

Overall, the return is now almost 100,000 fish short of what it should be at this time of year with little indication of any reason to expect the trend to change. Historically, the run peaks on June 4 at Miles Lake and then begins to slowly fade, although in most years good numbers of sockeye continue to return through June and July, which at least gives fisheries biologists hopes of meeting a spawning goal of 450,000.

Meanwhile, the outlook for in-river fishermen looks almost as grim as that for commercial gillnetters in Cordova whose Copper River season looks to be over after a catch of only 26,000 sockeye. That’s less 3 percent of projected harvest of 942,000 sockeye, plus an estimated 13,000 Chinook (or king) salmon.

The king run looked to be healthy this year, but the kings are caught incidental to the sockeye fishery. When it shut down, everything shut down, ending the king catch at 7,137.

All told, it has been a disaster for commercial fishermen who started the season expecting a bonanza with sockeye prices opening at an unheard of $8 to $9.50 per pound. Promoted as the “first-of-the-season” salmon from Alaska, Copper River fish have become a fad food for high-end culinary establishments. 

IntraFish, an industry website, was by the start of this week reporting Copper River salmon going for up to $1,000 per fish as the law of supply and demand took over a market seriously short on supply.

The overall loss to the Alaska economy of subsistence fishermen and personal-use dipnetters putting $1,000 fish in their freezers for winter food is staggering to think about, but at this point those fishermen aren’t expected to catch many either.

The fish wheels of the subsistence fishery have, to date, been pulling up few sockeye, according to all reports, and the dipnet catch for a weekend opening shortened to 24 hours from noon today to noon tomorrow is expected to be tiny.

Return calculations based on a usual two-week travel time from Miles Lake to Chitina for sockeye would indicate at most 15,000 fish are in the slurry pipeline that is the glacially muddy Copper River, and most probably there are a lot less fish than that.

Dipnetting success is closely related to the number of fish in the river. The few dipnetters headed for the Copper from Fairbanks and Anchorage seemed to be doing so mainly out of force of habit or just to get out of town.

Another fishing period is scheduled for next week, but it is expected to be shortened. The minimum spawning goal for the river is 360,000 sockeye, but fishery managers aim for 450,000 on the spawning beds.

Unless the sonar counter starts ticking up soon, they’re going to be forced to take further steps to reduce projected subsistence and personal-use catches of more than 208,000 salmon.










26 replies »

  1. All good Paul,
    I certainly understand about having anonymity, when posting on a blog, that is open to the public.
    There are a lot of haters out there.
    All the years I spent on the CDFU & PWSAC boards, and the public testimony I have given at numerous BOF meetings, has enabled me, to help be part of the solution, which is the sustainability of our state fisheries. I have always been involved for the long haul, since arriving in Cordova in ‘74. You can google my name, come up with various comments I have publicly made.
    Now, the private about me, is my image. There are only a couple photos online, so if you do not know me personally, you would not recognize me on the street. That is my anonymity.

    • James, I am confused. To Paul
      who posts anonymously, you say that you understand why people would want to remain anonymous when posting on a public blog. Yet you have critized me for wanting anonymity. Why the double standard James. Is it only ok to do so if the person agrees with your opinions?

      • TFC,
        Guess what, nothing is fair and there usually is not justice for the people, that mostly need it. And, yes I have the freedom to spout my own words, just as you do.
        The main issue, or the difference between what you and Paul say, is that you are not really looking for a real solution here. All you Steve O, Arno etc. and along with KRSA, is to blame the CR run failure on the PWS hatchery release of pink salmon. That is an agenda! We will see you at the next BOF mtg.!

      • James, you are certainly right that some on here are assuming that proof exists that those hatchery releases of pinks are the culprit. On the other hand, what if it turns out to be the case?? I think the possibility has to occur to reasonable people that the problem could lie with those large numbers of hatchery fish.
        The situation where the correlation of decline in shearwaters is pretty high, relative to hatchery release of pinks, is something that can’t be ignored IMO. And the fact that both shearwaters and sockeyes eat krill is something that I feel also leans toward this possible problem. I’ve personally witnessed the decline in shearwaters in my trips across the Gulf between Juneau and Cordova so this is a real problem that will be addressed. I’ve already mentioned the small size of CR reds along with size issue of Main Bay reds this year, too. Sure looks like a feed problem in the pasture for these fish (to me) and it doesn’t seem unreasonable that those pinks could be the culprit.
        That said, it will obviously need to be proven but nothing wrong with acknowledging that it could be the (or part of) problem. And I suspect the B of F will no doubt be looking at it.

    • James, I don’t know if I will be attending the BOF meeting you mentioned. But if I do I would enjoy having a cup of coffee or an adult beverage with you. I am always interested in hearing other’s opinions about the good and the bad of our fisheries. I will find you and am sure I will enjoy the occasion. Sorry about the CR fishery. I know many are disappointed and out of pocket. It is time to have an open mind and try to figure out what happened and stop it from reoccurring.

      • Agreed TFC, and Thank You, for your kind words and have good rest of the summer.

      • Thanks TFC, for the kind words.
        It is 11 days before the solstice, and summer will be here. It has been a long rainy spring for us. Time for fun in the sun!

  2. No disaster aid for Copper River commfish unless there is corresponding disaster aid for subsistence, personal use, sport fish and guides. As the latter will never happen, I would say no aid.

    Interestingly enough, we have far more proof that commercial fishing (massive releases of hatchery pink fry into PWS) is causing the current festivities in the Copper than we have Pebble wiping out all Bristol Bay salmon forever – some as opposed to absolutely none. Guess which problem we are addressing?

    A possible solution continues to be to figure out how to grow the pie, the number of salmon available for commercial sale. And the only way to do that is to make a move toward fish farming – onshore or off shore – for Pacific salmon species. Perhaps this summer will start discussion of this solution. Cheers –

  3. Interesting concept this “disaster relief” that James is hoping for. If there is an event which we have no control over such as a hurricane, tornado, flood, earthquake, or the like, FEMA steps in and disaster relief takes place. And people once again rebuild their homes etc in the same areas next to the volcano, or below sea level or in the path of many hurricanes or tornados that occurred in the past. And the beat goes on.
    Disaster relief for a failed fish run is a different matter IMO. If it is caused by mismanagement, or over harvest, or other acts by mankind, why should relief take place. CFEC permits are not a guarantee that fish will be caught. They are to provide opportunity with limited competition. They are not a property right, just an opportunity right. No one has a property right in the fish. But Alaskans have a right to an opportunity to harvest them. Why in the world would someone expect the federal govt to bail them out when fish do not appear in the numbers hoped? Especially if mankind may have caused the demise of the returns. Instead of asking for relief, fishers should ask “what happened?” and if possible, take steps to prevent it from occurring again.

    • Department of Agriculture gave some relief to commercial fishermen in the 90s due to the price collapse if I remember correctly. The wording is most likely geared towards farmers (and their relief) but commercial fishermen qualified back then and may again qualify under those rules.

      • Bill, UCI commercial and guides got relief just a few years ago when the fishery was closed due to low abundance.

      • How did the determination of catch numbers run-did they use some kind of average? The catch numbers for com. fishermen were known in the 90s and they just needed to determine the amount of price loss that was needed. When a fishery is closed some other determination needs to be used. EXXON had their own method for determining the number of fish a com. fisherman would have caught and something like that could be used (3 year average, say).

    • Billl: NMFS paid approx 4 million to UCI fishers in 2014. Payments included a fixed payment of $2,000 and then payments based on their average income over a several year period. I believe guides participated in a similar way, but am not sure of the details. I seem to remember that shutting the Sockeye fishery down had something to do with the crash of the Chinooks.

      • Seems to me that 2014 was a Chinook failure and most likely guides and setnetters were shut down together. And (I think) this was before the net shortening that has taken place to allow more kings under those setnets.
        Thanks for info on average.

  4. Well, there you go, after I said I would not post on this subject again, I did it twice more. Well, there you go, can’t trust nothing I say anymore.

  5. Oh we should never stop talking about the “precautionary principle” when managing salmon returns in times of change. Once either the state or Feds are forced, by low salmon returns, to play the subsistence allocation card Commerical salmon harvest will be “on the rocks” until whatever is causing the low returns fixes itself. That’s the law.

  6. Why do you want to stop talking about this subject James? Don’t you think that it should be a topic for conversation. Or is it because it would be to painful to think that there might have been some bad decisions in the past made by Dept Managers, Biologists, or those who oversee hatchery releases. Sure, talk does nothing to bring this run back. Probably. But I would think you would welcome a dialog that includes any suggestion that might help. No matter from where it came.

    • TFC or AF whatever your moniker is:
      Your are a horses ass! So shut your pie hole!
      Get another life, job or another blog to post on. In fact, why not start your own blog, see how many people post on it.
      Oh! Wait! You might have to use your real name!
      How is that working for ya all? That hopey, changey thing!
      Sorry, I already used that line. In other words, get lost, you irritate me.

  7. As I have stated in a number of posts on this subject:
    We will be lucky, to achieve the SEG on CR sockeye this season. The fish count will have to track at least 10K a day, during next 30 days. Not going to happen. Historically, the fish passage, has peaked by June 5th, of each year, and the daily passage then starts to decrease. By end of June and all of July, a 3-5k fish count pass Miles Lake sonar, is usually the average. We cannot catch up, since we are so far currently behind, the curve.
    Probably time to stop talking about this subject, and move on. The department will do what it can to mitigate this situation and hopefully the Feds will go along with any State recommendations. I am also myself, through discussing this issue, and have come to grips with the reality, that the commercial fishery on the lower CR, is basically done, this season, until the Coho season starts in August.

      • Bill,
        Is the Governor in town? There could be a chance of Federal disaster relief.

        Actually, it is a decent chinook return, that no one here actually addresses. Our CR Chinook run, is in fact on the rebound. 2nd year in a row, that we will achieve, at minimum, a 10K surplus, above the department’s SEG on kings.
        The commercial fleet’s ‘18 harvest, was already above 7K in three 12 hour openers, in May. Which, is more than 50% of our total harvest in 2017. It is probably a good 40-60K return. That is a decent average, over the last 40 seasons.
        Kings are healthy and the sockeye will rebound also, they are part of the cycle, that will continue on.
        This but a blip in the fraction of time, that us humans have been on our planet.
        Have some faith!

      • Right on James, You have that correct, Kings are recovered, and reds will too, “This is but a blip in a fraction of time” .Our ultimate goal is sustainability of the resource for our future generations”. Sorry about the anonymity, I am a quite,reserved ,person and do not like being quoted in the newspaper.

      • I don’t remember the wording when king gear was outlawed some years ago but it just seemed like that gear (used in such an emergency) would allow for some fishing without causing any harm to an already low red return. It would also be an unusually expensive thing that most would not participate in but it sounds like that gear is no longer acceptable (but this situation also should not be acceptable IMO).
        On the other hand, the thought that CR reds may be in store for such seasons, in the future, would suggest, to me, that the B of Fish should revisit this gear restriction. And further, the run failure is only part of the story-the fact that what fish are returning are in the neighborhood of 4 lbs. should be of major concern. Also, I understand it that Main Bay sockeyes are also running about 4 lbs. Something is going on in the bulking up of these fish and needs to be figured out IMO.
        We’ve seen some small fish before (Flats and MB) but I don’t believe other areas have experienced such small fish. I harvested a few reds on outside coast of SE last year (from a small run) and they seemed normal and I’ll be looking at them again next month.
        Sockeyes are big krill eaters and something else is (perhaps) getting to their feed-another species that feeds on krill (shearwaters) is also experiencing declines and these declines seem to correlate with the large numbers of pinks released from hatcheries. We may have created a monster that will need to be controlled if, in fact, it is the problem.

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