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.