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.