UPDATE: If you want a shot at Copper River salmon, go now. The 96-hour Chitina dipnet period that opens at 12:01 a.m. tomorrow and runs through 11:59 p.m. Sunday could be the last for the year. The fishery closed on the same day Alaskans were encourage to buy permits.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game was Wednesday lobbying Alaska residents to buy Chitina dipnet permits to fish the Copper River even as the troubled, 2018 return of sockeye salmon to that big, muddy drainage was fading so badly that Cordova commercial fishermen pleaded to have the dipnet fishery shut down.
“As of today sonar counts are well below projected counts and remain below the minimum threshold of 360,000 sockeye salmon for spawning escapements,” the Cordova District Fishermen United said in a letter to state officials. “In light of the weak early run component, restrictive closures on commercial fishing openers, and no noticeable increase in counts at the sonar currently, it is in the best interest of our sockeye runs to close the Copper River personal use and sport fisheries.”
The reference to restrictive commercial closures was an understatement. The commercial fishery enjoyed three short openings in May, but has been closed since May 28.
The closure was expected to lead to a marked jumped in the number of fish entering the river. That has not happened.
The return of sockeye to the Copper usually peaks around June 2 at an in-river, salmon-counting sonar near Miles Glacier northeast of the Prince William Sound community of Cordova. The peak came a couple of days late this year and well below expectations despite the end of commercial fishing off the mouth of the river.
On June 4, the sonar clicked off 14, 462 salmon. It was the best day of the year and still 2,000 fish shy of the day’s goal. Daily counts subsequently fell, ticked up slightly and now appear to be in a steady decline as projected.
The sonar counter has yet to tally a single day in which the actual return has met the projection for satisfying in-river needs. At this point, the run is about 100,000 fish shy of a preseason plan to put 644,000 salmon upriver by the end of the year.
And there are good reasons to wonder if even half that many fish will show.
Modeling salmon runs
Wild salmon returns generally follow a bell-shaped curve. Runs start with small numbers, build to a peak and then start to fall. State fisheries managers try to tailor commercial fishery openings to intercept surplus salmon while maintaining the normal shape of that curve.
They were expecting a catch of 942,000 sockeye this year. By now, a harvest of nearly half of them would have been expected, but the season’s total catch stands at 26,000. The total return is now short sockeye by the hundreds of thousands.
Based on this weakness of the run and the small size of sockeye returning everywhere in and around the Sound, state fisheries researchers suspect some sort of food shortage on the ocean pasture is to blame.
Cordova commercial fishermen James Mykland had to reach back to 1980 to find a year anything like this one.
“Sonar was first deployed in 1978,” he said, “so we don’t have escapement data before that, only commercial harvest numbers. At this time, I can only hope we get at least 350,000 past the sonar, which is possible if fish counts stay the same for another three weeks.”
Three-hundred-fifty-thousand is just about at the bottom of the range for an in-river spawning goal of 360,000 to 750,000 sockeye although state fishery managers try to put 450,000 sockeye on the spawning grounds.
Meanwhile, their in-river management goal for the year was built around getting those spawners into the river along with 130,500 salmon for the dipnet fishery, 77,000 for a subsistence fishery, and 15,000 for a sport fishery that boosts tourism around the small, Richardson Highway communities of Gulkana, Glennallen and Copper Center.
State fishery managers were huddling today to decide what to do about the personal-use and subsistence fisheries. The commercial fishery has been closed for more than two weeks now and looks likely to remain closed through the month.
Glennallen area biologist Mark Somerville said earlier this week that the catch in a 24-hour opening of the Alaskans-only, personal-use fishery on the weekend was tiny, largely because there were few fish in the river to be caught.
The Copper run failure is unprecedented in modern times. Over the course of the last 30 years, the number of salmon making it back into the river has never fallen below 370,000, and the return was usually over 400,000 even though the state operated with a smaller spawning goal of 300,000 to 500,000 sockeye up until 2002.
The in-river return in 1980 was about 235,000. Alaska was at that time coming off a decade of unusually cold water in the Gulf of Alaska, and salmon runs were depressed everywhere in the state. The state estimated only 67,000 sockeye total made it back into the Copper in 1978, but there was that year a commercial harvest of 250,000 Copper River sockeye.
In fact, the only year on record with a worse commercial sockeye catch than this year was 1980 when the state began a push to put more fish upriver to rebuild a depleted Copper run. The sockeye catch that year was limited to 19,000 fish – 7,000 less than the catch so far this year.
It was an oddity. The lowest catch over the next 28 years was 478,000 in 1981, and by 1982, the harvest had grown to 1.2 million. By 2005, the 10-year-average catch would be up to 1.5 million sockeye, and it would remain there through 2016 despite a 2008 disaster that saw the harvest drop to 321,000.
That was a one-time event.
The first sign of possibly big problems didn’t appear until 2016 when the catch dropped to 1.2 million only to plummet o 570,000 fish last year – “60 percent less than the previous 10-year (2007-2016) harvest average of 1.43 million sockeye salmon and 36 percent below forecast,” according to Fish and Game.
The catch so far this year is 3 percent of forecast.
Scientists studying the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in the Sound have suggested that sockeye salmon are paying the prize for a boom in Sound salmon hatcheries. The Sound has become the Alaska capital of ocean ranching. Hundreds of millions of young pink salmon are now released from Sound hatcheries every year.
“All sockeye salmon stocks examined exhibited a downward trend in productivity with increasing PWS hatchery pink salmon returns,” Eric J. Ward from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last year in conjunction with scientists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in California, Fish and Game, the Farallon Institute for Advanced Ecosystem Research, and the University of Alaska.
“While there was considerable variation in sockeye salmon productivity across the low- and mid-range of hatchery returns (0–30 million), productivity was particularly impacted at higher levels of hatchery returns,” they wrote in a lengthy, peer-reviewed study. “Pink salmon have been found to negatively affect sockeye salmon productivity and growth from British Columbia and Southeast Alaska, Bristol Bay, Kodiak, and Russia.
“Pink and sockeye salmon compete in the marine environment due to a high degree of similarity in diets, including similarities in diets of adult pink salmon and juvenile sockeye salmon. Our analysis was primary designed to test drivers in the nearshore environment, which is why we stopped at a lag of two (brood) years—when the majority of juvenile sockeye salmon outmigrate from the nearshore environment as adult pink salmon are returning to spawn. We do not know if possible deleterious interactions between hatchery pink salmon and wild sockeye salmon in this study are from predation or competition, or whether they occur in nearshore or offshore areas.
“Pink salmon feeding may cause a general depletion of prey availability that could impact sockeye salmon without tight spatial overlap of these two species. In this regard, the apparent impact to sockeye productivity may reflect a general increase in pink salmon abundance across the Northeast Pacific rather than increased abundance of hatchery pink salmon to PWS in particular. However, adult pink salmon are known to feed on a broad diversity of prey items within PWS prior to spawning, including a variety of zooplankton; and therefore have the potential to compete with juvenile sockeye salmon in PWS for the same prey.”