No sooner did the burst of sockeye salmon into the Copper River begin than it was over.
With the famous salmon river in eastern Alaska again falling behind projected daily returns, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced today that a Thursday through Sunday opening of the popular personal-use dipnet fishery will likely be the year’s last.
The weak sockeye run has now turned into a disaster for almost everyone. Cordova commercial fishermen off the mouth of the river caught only 26,000 of the highly valuable sockeye in three short openings in May before they were shutdown for the year.
Closures followed not long after in the dipnet and sport fisheries upriver, and even subsistence fishermen who normally are allowed to fish around the clock were limited to 48 hours of fishing per week.
With sockeye bringing a dock price of $9.50 per pound, they were looking at a bonanza even though the fish were running small at an average weight of 5.1 pounds.
Still, 1.2 million of sockeye at the unheard of price would have made for a $59 million fishery for the approximately 520 gillnetters with state permits to fish commercially. Unfortunately, it was not to be.
The run can only be described as a bust. As of Wednesday, only about 566,000 of the expected 1.9 million fish could be accounted for, the bulk of them in-river. The cumulative return for the date remained about 40,000 fish above the goal, but the number looked seriously threatened.
Since peaking on July 1 – when 22,950 sockeye passed sonar counters near Miles Glacier on the lower river – daily returns have been plummeting. The Wednesday count was more than 3,600 fish below the daily goal. Today’s 6 a.m. count was below that of Wednesday, an indication of a faltering run. And the trend line was pointing at the basement.
With more than 540,000 sockeye safely in-river, the minimum spawning goal of 360,000 has been achieved, but the entire run for the year is like to end up somewhere short of 700,000 sockeye, or less than 40 percent of the preseason forecast.
State fisheries biologists have blamed ocean conditions. Researchers studying the Exxon Valdez oil spill have pointed to declines driven by the apparent inability of young sockeye to compete with hundreds of millions of Prince William Sound hatchery pink salmon in the ocean.
The Alaska Board of Fisheries is to meet next week to discuss whether another increase in Sound hatchery production of pinks, or humpies as Alaskans often call them, should be allowed. The state’s huge production of pinks – 142 million of them last year accounted for 63 percent of the statewide salmon harvest of 225 million salmon – is becoming a growing topic of discussion with sockeye runs faltering or weak not only in the Copper River but at Chignik and in parts of the Kodiak Archipelago.
Commercial fishermen in Chignik have not fished, according to Fish and Game, and “as of July 5, approximately 225,000 sockeye salmon have been harvested in the Kodiak Area. Typically by July 5 the Kodiak Area has harvested between approximately 650,000 to 700,000 sockeye salmon. The current Kodiak Area sockeye salmon harvest is the weakest in 38 years, and the eighth weakest in the past 48 years.
“Due to very weak sockeye salmon escapement at the Afognak Lake and Buskin River, both the sport and subsistence salmon fisheries in those drainages have been closed.”
Sockeye are the state’s most valuable commercial catch. The 52 million caught last year accounted for 48 percent of the $679 million value of the Alaska catch. The silvery, 6- to 8-pound, red-fleshed fish are also the favorite of anglers who flock to Alaska from across the country every summer.
Sockeye runs to Cook Inlet are still building. The Russian River saw a strong return of early-run sockeye, but things are not looking as good for the July return to the Kenai River. The 51,000 that had made it into the Kenai by Wednesday is below average for the date, although its way too early to tell what kind of return the state’s best known river is going to get.
The forecast calls for 4.6 million sockeye for upper Cook Inlet with a commercial harvest of 1.9 million. Fishing has been slow to date with the commercial fishery catching only 273,000.
Of the 4.6 million, 2.5 million are predicted as bound for the Kenai with another 866,000 headed for the Kasilof River just to the south. But how many get into those rivers is dictated in large part by how the state prosecutes the offshore drift gillnet fishery and the nearshore set gillnet fishery.