Unexpected bounty

Russian River

Russian River anglers stalk sockeye salmon/Berkley Bedell, USFWS photo

News analysis

Good news at last for salmon-loving Alaskans who’ve watched sockeye returns to the fabled Copper River spurt and falter this year.

No, the Copper hasn’t witnessed the miraculous return of tens of thousands of overdue fish, but there are now indications that the disastrously weak run there might be limited to the wild, 26,000-square mile watershed near the Canadian border.

An unexpected bounty of sockeye has shown up at Bear Lake on the Kenai Peninsula and the early return of sockeye to the Kenai’s Russian River looks to be tracking the 2017 return, albeit it a week late.

Upwards of 40,000 early-run sockeye returned to the Russian last year. It is one of the most state’s most popular salmon fisheries, but for Alaskans hungry for salmon, the big weekend action might be at the head of Resurrection Bay about 130 miles south of Anchorage via the Seward Highway.

Can you say “12 fish per day bag limit?”

More than 10,100 sockeye have already swum into Bear Lake, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which puts the return near the lake’s the upper spawning goal of 12,800.

Given that, the state agency is trying to slow the return and has opened the doors wide on harvests in order to try to catch this fish. Anglers fishing saltwater around the mouth of the Resurrection River or in the Bay itself are now allowed a limit of 12 sockeye per day – up from the usual three – and snagging is permitted.

Upstream from the state signs that mark the transition to freshwater on the river, anglers will be allowed six sockeye per day starting Saturday, but snagging will remain prohibited, according to a separate emergency order.


What all of this means in the big picture remains to be sorted. The Copper is now 100,000 shy of sockeye expectations for this date despite a closure of the commercial fishery off the mouth of that river which would, in a normal year, have caught more than 100,000 sockeye by now.

And the meaning of the Bear Creek/Bear Lake harvest is not as simple as it might first  appear. There is no doubt about a monster run for the little lake near Seward.

Commercial fishermen had harvested 125,000 Bear Lake sockeye through Thursday – about seven times as many as through the same date last year, according to Fish and Game.

But the poundage isn’t what one would expect because the sockeye are midgets.

“Average weight of the (Bear Lake) sockeye salmon harvested in Resurrection Bay remains at approximately 3.6 pounds per fish and compares to an average weight of 4.9 pounds for fish landed before June 6 over the most recent five years,” state commercial fishery biologists reported. “In addition, preliminary sampling may indicate that over 98 percent of the harvested fish are 4 year olds. This may partially account for the smaller size in comparison to recent years where often 4 year olds make up under half of the final harvest, with the remainder being 5- and 6-year-old fish.”

Bert Lewis, a state fisheries biologist, and colleagues in 2015 documented a decades-long, Alaska-wide trend toward smaller, young salmon returning from the ocean.

“Size-selective harvest may be driving earlier maturation and declines in size, but the evidence is not conclusive, and additional factors, such as ocean conditions or competitive interactions with other species of salmon, may also be responsible,” they wrote. 

The fad in the wake of the Copper sockeye bust has been to blame The Blob, a short-lived pool of hot water centered in the Gulf of Alaska, for the lack of Copper River fish and their small size, but its far from clear The Blob was the problem, or the only problem, for Alaska salmon.

The shrinkage in size started long before The Blob showed up, and The Blob certainly wouldn’t explain the bounty of sockeye showing in Resurrection Bay, thought it  might explain their size.

“Temperature can…directly influence maturation, with increasing temperatures being linked to decreasing age and size at maturation,” Neala Kendall from the University of Washington and colleagues observed in a peer-reviewed paper published in Evolutionary Application ins 2014. “However, offshore waters of the North Pacific Ocean in which Bristol Bay sockeye salmon reside during their maturation decision period, is one of the few places where temperatures have decreased slightly since the 1950s  inconsistent with the decreases in size at maturation observed for these fish.”

There are a whole lot of variables at play here.

“Age at maturity is so highly variable within species that it is difficult to sort out differences among species,” writes U.S. Forest Service biologist Mary F. Willson. “In almost every species whose range encompasses a variety of habitat types or latitudes, the age of maturation is greater in habitats with poorer food supplies, shorter growing seasons, and lower temperatures.”

A bunch of studies have linked diminished food supplies to later maturation of salmon, not earlier maturation as appears to be the case in Resurrection Bay.

It is likewise hard to explain the unexpectedly large return of sockeye to Bear Lake if one assumes a broad, Pacific-wide food shortage. Localized food shortages or food competition between too many fish for a limited amount of food in certain places at certain times are different matters.

That might explain certain Alaska salmon populations slumping while others are on the rise.

Everywhere as the Alaska fishing season unfolds, returns are proving a bit confusing. Sockeye are coming back to most of Kodiak Island in expected numbers, but they are unexpectedly weak on the northeast end of the Island and adjacent Afognak Island.

And then there is Chignik, where a string of small lakes on the Alaska Peninsula are famous for their big runs of sockeye. At the moment, Chignik is looking a lot like the Copper River.

“As of 10:00 a.m., June 15th, approximately 5,348 sockeye salmon have passed through the Chignik weir,” Fish and Game reported. “This is well below escapement objectives and is a historical low escapement for the Chignik weir. At this time, it is difficult to tell if the run is weak or late. Aerial surveys of the lagoon have shown there is little to no buildup of sockeye in the Chignik Lagoon.”

The lack of salmon in the lagoon is bad sign reminiscent of the low catch in the  gillnet fishery of the mouth of the Copper before it closed on May 28 with a catch of only 26,000 sockeye. Some thought the run there was late, and that catches would start increasing in June.

They didn’t because fishery managers shut down the fishery,  and even then the number of fish entering the Copper fell below expectations and continues to fall below expectations.

And then there are the Cook Inlet Chinook (king) salmon missing by the tens of thousands. There are so few that almost all the king fisheries for hundreds of miles around Alaska’s largest city have been shut down or gone catch and release.

The picture leaves plenty for fishermen to ponder.










26 replies »

    • Actually, nothing to scoff about a 29 lb king salmon. The CR chinook has always averaged 18-21 lb fish, until end of May, then get up to 22-27 lb average.
      Anyway quit whining, come on down to Whittier, gateway to Western PWS, lots of salmon to be harvested, by all fish user groups. Go to Main Bay, catch sockeyes or to Esther Island and catch some Keta. A win win for everyone.

  1. Hey Craig,
    Have you read the ADF&G announcement from today?
    The 24 hour comm fish opener (which closed yesterday 8am) in the Eshamy district, produced, 87K sockeye & 11K chums, which were harvested by both the set and drift gillnet fleet. During same time period, in the Coghill district, 71K chum & 8K sockeye were harvested (and this was from a reduced area). PWSAC will have completed cost recovery by tomorrow, Sunday 17th. It will almost wide open fishing in both districts on Monday.
    So, get news out, tell the subsistence, sport and personal use fishers to come on down to Whittier, which is only a hop, skip and jump to the Fishing grounds. If they do not have their own boat, plenty of charter vessels based in Whittier.
    So, come all Alaskans, come and support Whittier or even Valdez and head to Esther Island or Main Bay and load up with lots of sockeyes and chum. Lots of opportunities for all fish user groups. Go out tomorrow on Father’s Day, will not have to compete with comm fishers. Plenty of salmon to harvested and good tasting too!

  2. Bear Lake.
    Gilbert Rich or European aging technique?
    Documentation of speculation as to why fish are smaller is presented. Any come across with the potential of an altering genome? And, also, genome driven environmental changes, possible? Next, at what age are Bear Lake sockeye considered jacks; 1.0, 1.1, 1.2? Just curious. Yes, lots of questions, changes seem so fast these days.

  3. The “blog” blame is just another excuse. It would be refreshing if the Dept simply said “we do not know” or at least acknowledged the possibility that the massive release of Pinks may be worth carefully looking into. Or perhaps recognize that managing to the Ricker model may not be the best way. Perhaps the dreaded over escapement theory or the less is more theory needs careful examination. There likely will be a new Commissioner and new Directors next January who will be challenged to find answers. Might be a good time to be introspective.

    • AF, my reading of F & G’s blaming the “blob” mentioned that lack of feed available because of conditions associated with it (blob). While they clearly avoided the mention of all those Pinks released into that “blob” it just is implicit that the “lack of feed” was possibly enhanced by all those extra “hungry mouths.”

      • The Dept can’t complain too much about the hatchery releases being a likely or possible culprit. They are opposing a petition to prevent the 20 million additional from the Valdez facility. With all the publicity surrounding fishery low abundance and potential
        Hatchery complicity I would think that the Dept would simply back off on this narrow issue. Especially in an election year.

  4. Just an observation on Resurrection Bay, a friend who mentioned yesterday that he had filleted 72 reds from that fishery and that only a dozen had been females. This could be that an unusual number of jacks have returned a year early, although this could be due to a small sample. We do know that they are small in size (also heard 4.5 lbs).
    Anyway, a lot of jacks tend to mean the next year’s run will be large but it seems that this year’s run is large. I don’t know if last year also had a large number of jack reds come back.

  5. Of course we know that the problem with the Copper can not be the half million fish that escaped in just one week in the parent year, clearly overcrowding just a few streams. Because all upriver users know that overescapement is not harmful to Sockeye runs, and that is not what hurt Coghill river in the 80s.

    • I’m thinking a look at the numbers of fry that came out of Chignik weir might tell us a lot about what that overescapement did to that early red run. I sure don’t expect to read about that in this blog. Heheh!

      • what year do you think Chignik over-escaped, Bill? and those would be smolts coming out, not fry.

        Chignik is a really well monitored system. there is a smolt enumeration project there:

        the early run for Chignik was forecast to be lower than the 10-year average this year at 848,000 but it is coming back even weaker than that. and the range for the early run was “0 fish to 1,914,000

        why do you think that is?

      • I don’t know that over-escapements occurred for this year’s salmon but suspect that to be the case. They have over-escaped before “In the Chignik watershed, overescapements have occurred in both early and late sockeye salmon runs from 1998 through 2001, with the combined escapements for both runs nearly double the upper range of the goals in 2001.” That is from
        Like I said, I suspect that over-escapements will be shown to be at least part of the problem.
        Further, I don’t for a minute believe that CR fish are missing over a million fish only due to the “blob.” So far we are only missing the early fish (those that were influenced by the 500k over-escapements to the brood year) – I do suspect the small size is due to the “blob,” however.

      • i’m well familiar with that report, Bill. it doesn’t make your case. in fact, if you scroll down to page 32 you will see that when Chignik ER over escaped, yield INCREASED by 15 percent. not the case for the LR, of course, of course, yield there dropped by 19 percent.

        but that range from 15 percent more to 19 percent less goes directly to the question i asked that you didn’t answer. the question that gets at the real issue here, which is not the over-escapement strawman.

        as the linked study notes: “we did not observe long-term stock collapse of any of the 40 stocks that could be attributed to
        overescapement.” there are variations in yield. they are most notable on very small, very contained systems such as Chignik and Coghill.

        the Copper in that study, in fact, shows only a 20 percent drop in yield to a harvest of 880,000 when “overescaped.” the harvest this year is what?

        and the upper boundary on the Copper is SEG is 750,000. if we add to that the reported inriver harvest of about 200,000 (we’re now at 950,000) and buy even half the claims i’ve heard over the years from commercial fishermen about all the unreported harvest in the river, i’m not even sure we went that far over the upper goal.

        but if you think there is an overescapement problem in the Copper, we should be controlling for it where it makes a difference – at the rivers on the spawning systems. trying to control overescapement on the flats is sure to give us spawning systems both overescaped and underescaped. it’s like doing surgery with a chainsaw.

        go look at the correlation between Gulkana and Copper escapements. we put 960,000 sockeye up the Copper in 2006 and more than 34,000 of them got into the Gulkana. the state hasn’t set an SEG there, but if it did it would likely be somewhere around 25,000 based on the run history. so in 2006, the Gulkana was overescaped.

        four years late in 2010, 924,000 sockeye went up the Copper, but only 16,000 made it into Gulkana. it was way underescaped. the extra fish had to go somewhere. so what was overescaped that year?

      • Copper River (Miles L) Sockeye for 2010

        Location: Copper River (Miles L)
        Species: Sockeye
        Method: Sonar

        The selected years are color-coded in the graphs below:

        Daily Counts

        Description: The Sonar on the Copper River is located at the outlet of Miles Lake, about 70 miles from the Chitina dipnet fishery. It takes approximately 2 weeks for salmon to travel this distance, but this is highly variable depending on the water level. The water levels listed here are an indication of the general trends in the Copper River but may not be indicative of what is occurring at Chitina. The current escapement goal for Sockeye is 360,000 to 750,000.
        More information about the sonar is located Copper River sonar/weir site external link.
        For 2011 data, see also the Copper River Commercial Fish salmon fishery page.

        Contact: PWS Comm Fish Research Biologist,
        (907) 424-3212

        73 records returned for the years selected. Dashes indicate days with no count.
        [Export results in Excel format]

        2010 Count
        2010 Cumulative
        2010 Notes for
        Jul-31 7,326 924,010 Water Level 42.79
        Jul-30 12,090 916,684 Water Level 42.78
        Jul-29 11,354 904,594 Water Level 42.84
        Jul-28 11,076 893,240 Water Level 42.81
        Jul-27 6,870 882,164 Water Level 42.65
        Jul-26 6,039 875,294 Water Level 42.75
        Jul-25 6,858 869,255 Water Level 42.9
        Jul-24 8,538 862,397 Water Level 42.94
        Jul-23 7,627 853,859 Water Level 42.91
        Jul-22 10,177 846,232 Water Level 42.8
        Jul-21 9,354 836,055 Water Level 42.64
        Jul-20 7,287 826,701 Water Level 42.57
        Jul-19 9,732 819,414 Water Level 42.59
        Jul-18 11,533 809,682 Water Level 42.52
        Jul-17 15,471 798,149 Water Level 42.43
        Jul-16 21,869 782,678 Water Level 42.43
        Jul-15 18,641 760,809 Water Level 42.49
        Jul-14 19,245 742,168 Water Level 42.54
        Jul-13 20,484 722,923 Water Level 42.65
        Jul-12 22,830 702,439 Water Level 42.79
        Jul-11 22,482 679,609 Water Level 42.75
        Jul-10 30,961 657,127 Water Level 42.61
        Jul-09 31,188 626,166 Water Level 42.46
        Jul-08 23,428 594,978 Water Level 42.34
        Jul-07 20,119 571,550 Water Level 42.35
        Jul-06 16,134 551,431 Water Level 42.3
        Jul-05 11,634 535,297 Water Level 42.88
        Jul-04 12,348 523,663 Water Level 42.34
        Jul-03 12,734 511,315 Water Level 42.32
        Jul-02 14,826 498,581 Water Level 42.35
        Jul-01 14,150 483,755 Water Level 42.33
        Jun-30 11,701 469,605 Water Level 42.37
        Jun-29 8,923 457,904 Water Level 42.3
        Jun-28 7,549 448,981 Water Level 42.26
        Jun-27 9,450 441,432 Water Level 42.24
        Jun-26 8,504 431,982 Water Level 42.21
        Jun-25 6,354 423,478 Water Level 42.07
        Jun-24 5,639 417,124 Water Level 41.88
        Jun-23 6,170 411,485 Water Level 41.72
        Jun-22 5,988 405,315 Water Level 41.45
        Jun-21 5,948 399,327 Water Level 41.3
        Jun-20 6,930 393,379 Water Level 41.24
        Jun-19 8,214 386,449 Water Level 41.18
        Jun-18 7,938 378,235 Water Level 41.58
        Jun-17 8,718 370,297 Water Level 41.47
        Jun-16 10,302 361,579 Water Level 41.47
        Jun-15 9,350 351,277 Water Level 41.41
        Jun-14 8,445 341,927 Water Level 41.5
        Jun-13 8,136 333,482 Water Level 41.6
        Jun-12 9,925 325,346 Water Level 41.73
        Jun-11 11,184 315,421 Water Level 41.79
        Jun-10 10,764 304,237 Water Level 41.47
        Jun-09 14,224 293,473 Water Level 41.75
        Jun-08 16,773 279,249 Water Level 41.72
        Jun-07 23,570 262,476 Water Level 41.7
        Jun-06 26,097 238,906 Water Level 41.86
        Jun-05 25,532 212,809 Water Level 42.18
        Jun-04 26,108 187,277 Water Level 42.4
        Jun-03 25,481 161,169 Water Level 42.29
        Jun-02 22,323 135,688 Water Level 42.27
        Jun-01 18,608 113,365 Water Level 42.22
        May-31 16,470 94,757 Water Level 42.04
        May-30 17,809 78,287 Water Level 41.75
        May-29 14,195 60,478 Water Level 41.53
        May-28 9,636 46,283 Water Level 41.34
        May-27 7,975 36,647 Water Level 41.03
        May-26 9,031 28,672 Water Level 40.6
        May-25 7,333 19,641 Water Level 40.3
        May-24 5,550 12,308 Water Level 40.04
        May-23 3,080 6,758 Water Level 39.96
        May-22 2,077 3,678 Water Level 0
        May-21 1,577 1,601 Water Level 0
        May-20 24 24 Water Level 0
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      • Well Craig, you can see that both sets of numbers can’t be right and at least one has to be wrong. I’ll go out over my skis here and suggest your daily numbers don’t make sense for the reason that 20k to 30k daily escapements in July would be an incredible outlier IMO.

      • i don’t know, Bill. i know there were some years in the late 2000s when we got over 20,000 fish per day in late June or early July because of unusually good returns to the Gulkana hatchery. really doesn’t change the point anyway.
        Copper River returns and spawning system returns don’t track very well.
        if you want another example, try 2013 when 1.3M went up the Copper and 47,000 swarmed the Gulkana. that would, in my opinion, constitute over-escapement there.
        the next year 1.2M went up the Copper and the Gulkana saw only 23,000, which probably is near OE.
        it would help if we had more escapement goals for the major sockeye producing systems in the Copper River basin and data on returns to those systems.
        it is, like the ocean, a very complex picture. the way it works now there could be years when we “over escape” the Copper based on that sonar count, and actually under escape all of the major sockeye producing systems because of the luck of the draw on one system being an outlier and throwing a big return like Bear Lake this year.

      • I think you also said that none of those 2010 fish went to Gulkana (another reason to doubt your numbers)-anyway the F & G numbers were shown to be only about half of your numbers and the idea that those numbers would enter the Copper for almost all of July is just not believable IMO. Perhaps the sonar was determined to be off and adjustments were made after the counts that you got.
        As for Gulkana over-escapements, I believe that those egg takers can remove a lot of those fish to keep the oe from getting to be a problem.

      • Bill: those aren’t my numbers. they’re copied and pasted straight off the state website. i don’t have any numbers.

        go to the website: pull down Copper River. go to 2010.

        if they’re wrong, it ain’t me. the could be wrong. i don’t know. i just know what’s there.

        and after you look at 2010, go look at 2002. it shows a big July peak as well. 264,000 are shown hitting the river between July 6-16. maybe that’s wrong, too. don’t know. not my data.

        but i’m hoping that a.) the date is correct as on the website; and that b.) we get another July like that.

        and the egg take on the Gulkana, unless they’ve relocated it, is way up on the East Fork, which gets only a small part of the Gulkana sockeye run. the Gulkana is a complex drainage draining into a complex drainage. there’s some maps in attached link of all the places sockeyes go in that drainage and others in the Copper River basin:

      • We are beating a dead horse here Craig. If those numbers you state were correct, the F & G would be using them and they clearly are not ( And those numbers don’t pass any kind of smell test, either. You can insist all you want about getting those numbers off of some website but that doesn’t mean that those fish entered the river-and further you also mentioned that Gulkana didn’t get any (now why do you suppose that is). You are talking about 350k reds in July alone-that’s crazy IMO.
        The Gulkana egg boxes provide anywhere from 100k to 200k fish to the system pretty consistently and if there was an over-escapement to Gulkana, then it is my opinion that it was most likely due to those fish (certainly not impossible that other wild fish contributed but not likely IMO).

      • Just dawned on me Craig that we may be comparing different numbers. Your numbers are those entering the river @ sonar but F & G numbers are escapements after all the other upriver takers have removed their fish.
        Anyway, looks like a lot of fish were entering the river in July, after all, and we can hope that something like that can occur again (perhaps this year).

      • yes, indeed. your persistence forced me to finally got back and sort this. the explanation is at the bottom of the numbers in the escapement review:

        “Wild spawning escapements after 1977 were estimated as the adjusted Miles Lake sonar index (in DIDSON units) minus subsistence, personal use, and sport harvests in addition to the Gulkana Hatchery broodstock and excess
        brood escapement.”

        they removed 433,000 fish as harvest and hatchery. i would have to guess most of those came from that big July peak in the in-river count in July. that’s when the hatchery fish usually hit the river in force. but it also leaves me even more baffled by the low Gulkana escapement that year.

        if so many of those fish were headed for the hatchery, were spawning needs met in all the sockeye lakes in that system? none of this “optimum escapement” shit is as simple as we’d like to think. Mother Nature is way too fickle.

        and since you made me read that damn report again (i’ve read ever escapement study done on the CR over the years at time of release), i will also highlight one line from the report for you because i’m so tired of this “over escapement” nonsense:

        “As shown in previous analyses there is no evidence to suggest that production (as measured by yield from combined upper and delta stocks) is reduced with higher escapements.”

      • Craig,
        Time to let it go! The CR sockeye return is over for the season, for comm, sports and pu user groups. That is fact. Subsistence is still allowed.
        If Alaskans want salmon, then come on down to Esther or Main Bay, catch plenty of sockeye and chum.

    • We also know that the Exxon oil spill which dumped 11 million gallons of crude (Exxons estimate) directly into the spawning grounds (Tatitlik, Bligh Island, Naked Island ,and Montague) of the PWS Herring stock had nothing to do with the decline in PWS herring immediatly afterwards. As Exxon told us Herring thrive on crude oil. It is like fertilizer for them when they are hatched ,and in fact it was a bit extra fresh water that killed them. It was just a mere coincidence the crash took place immediatly following the spill.Just goes to show Justice is a game won by the rich IMO

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