The bad news thousands of Alaskans dipnetters expected to hear is now official:
The Copper River personal-use fishery near Chitina will officially close at midnight Sunday and remain closed indefinitely.
“I imagine it’s going to stay closed for the summer,” area biologist Mark Somerville said Wednesday afternoon.
“The 2018 sockeye salmon run to the Copper River appears to be much weaker than expected and is the eight lowest count for this date since 1978,” the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said in an emergency-order issued even later that day.
In a normal year, the Chitina fishery attracts about 10,000 Alaskans to the Wood Canyon area of the dusty, windswept corridor of the big, turbid glacier river about 250 miles east of Anchorage, the state’s largest city, and 300 miles southeast of Fairbanks, the state’s second largest city.
Limited to Alaska residents only, the Chitina dipnet fishery is a full-on, salmon-killing meat harvest that attracts those looking to fill their freezers for the winter. The closure will hit hard at those who count on the river’s bounty.
Some were head for Chitina as this was written in hopes of one last chance in a final fishery opening that starts Thursday. The prospects for success were not good.
Salmon few and small
Not only is the run past the fish-counting sonar at Miles Glacier unusually small this year, but the harvest in the commercial fishery off the mouth of the river has been even smaller, an indication of few fish trying to get into the river.
The commercial season closed May 28 after three brief openings during which the 520 or so commercial permit holders from the seaside community of Cordova caught only 26,000 the Copper River sockeye so coveted by upscale restaurants the Lower 48 that prices being paid fishermen went to an unheard of $9.50 per pound.
Not many got to collect on the promise of those prices. The only smaller Copper River catch on record dates to 1980 when the state seriously clamped down on the commercial fishery to begin rebuilding depleted Copper River stocks.
The 1980 harvest was but 19,000 sockeye. In the 28 years that have followed, the next smallest commercial catch was 478,000 in 1981. The total return of sockeye – a combination of those caught and the salmon counted in-river – is at the moment a record low. But the in-river turn is expected to grow steadily in the weeks ahead given that only subsistence fishermen will be killing sockeye from now on.
They are expected to catch less than 75,000. The dipnet catch had been projected at more than 130,000. As of Tuesday, the sonar count for 2018 was lagging almost 100,000 fish behind the in-river goal. The shortfall is unprecedented in modern times.
Poor ocean survival is being blamed. Speculation has focused on food shortages tied to The Blob, a pool of unusually warm water that persisted in the Gulf of Alaska for two years; competition for food with about 1 billion hatchery pink salmon riding the ocean rivers of the North Pacific Ocean toward feeding grounds in the Bering Sea or some combination of the two.
The Alaska Board of Fisheries is set to meet July 6 in Anchorage to discuss the salmon ranching issue and decide whether a state agency decision to allow the Valdez Fisheries Development Association to add another 10 million pink salmon to the flood of hatchery fish into Prince William Sound, which become the ocean-ranching capital of the North American West Coast.
Meanwhile, attention is shifting toward Cook Inlet where sockeye salmon are just beginning to return. The early run of fish to the Russian River has been low, but looks to be building normally.
The fate of the far bigger, later return to the Kenai River is at the moment a big question mark. There is no way of telling yet whether those fish ran into the same food shortages on the ocean pastures as depleted the Copper River run and left many of region’s returning sockeye on the thin side.
Sockeye returning to the Main Bay hatchery on Eshamy Island in the Sound are now averaging but 4.1 pounds, according to state reports. That is near the minimum size for spawning sockeye. The hatchery appears to be getting a better return than the Copper River, but the 65,000 sockeye caught to date, according to Fish and Game records, remain but a fraction of the 763,000 forecast by the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Association.
The forecast was based on ocean survival of 7.56 percent of the hatchery fish. The rate now seems unlikely given what has been seen with the wild fish of the Copper.