As the Alaska summer winds to a close, a hunt is on for the missing sockeye salmon of the 49th state’s fabled Copper River.
It might be the perfect ending to the worst season in the modern history of the fish that chefs across the country have come to await anxiously every May.
Pickings were slim for Copper sockeye this year. Only 26,000 of the fish were caught by drift gillnetters in the tiny, isolated, coastal port of Cordova before the fishery was shut down in May not to reopen, and then only briefly, until July.
The preseason forecast from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game called for a harvest of 1.2 million sockeye. The total seasonal catch for the fishery off the mouth of the big, turbid, glacial river draining most of Eastern Alaska south of the Alaska Range ended up totalling but 44,000 sockeye – only 4 percent of the season’s projection and the second lowest catch in 50 years.
But the closure of the commercial fishery for most of the season did enable state fishery managers to meet goals for salmon escapement into the river. The big question now is where those 702,000 sockeye went.
When the disastrously weak return of sockeye in May and early June built into a stronger, run-saving return in July and August, everyone in the know expected a hatchery on the Gulkana River tributary to the Copper had saved the day.
The hatchery has historically been responsible for a big part of the July and August returns to the Copper, It was credited with producing more than 1.1 million sockeye in 1999.
Most years, the East Fork Gulkana near the hatchery is plugged with fish.
Not this year. There are so few sockeye that the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Association (PSWAC) – a private, non-profit organization funded and run by commercial fishermen – is way behind on its permitted take of 35 million eggs for the hatchery.
PSWAC has taken only about 1 million eggs to date, Jeremy Botz, a Cordova-based commercial fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said Thursday. The organization would normally be about a third of the way toward that 35 million goal.
PSWAC’s permit allows it to start taking eggs on Aug. 15 and continue through Oct. 15. But in an effort to maintain the natural run timing of the Gulkana stock, the permit has standards intended to ensure a slow build up to maximum egg removals in the Sept. 16 to Oct. 5 period and then a tapering egg take through Oct. 15.
The hatchery should be busy now, but there aren’t a lot of fish available.
Mark Somerville, a sport fish colleague of Botz’s in Glennallen on the Richardson Highway just south of the Gulkana, Wednesday admitted to worries that PSWAC isn’t going to find enough sockeye. He was theorizing that maybe the unusually high waters on the Copper and Gulkana rivers for much of this year had spurred some fish to cut their migrations short and spawn downstream from the East Fork, maybe even downstream from a fish counting tower more than 40 miles up the Gulkana.
State employees working that tower counted fewer than 12,000 sockeye going up the river this year – a fraction of the normal 20,000 to 25,000. But the count is suspect. For about a week in June counts were impossible because of water conditions, and there are indications sockeye were still making their way up the Copper when the tower was shut down for the season on Aug. 13.
“It’s strange,” Botz admitted. “The fish really haven’t shown yet. (But) I’m still hopeful that they’re going to show up there.”
Somerville was somewhat less optimistic. No one has reported large number of sockeye moving up the Gulkana toward the East Fork, he noted.
“We’ve still got some figuring out to do,” he confessed.
From the get go in May, it has been a strange year on the Copper.
Historically, 20 to 25 percent of the sockeye enter the river in May and the run builds to a peak near the end of June. Those fish fan out in to spawn in dozens of clear water tributaries that drain 26,500-square-miles of Eastern Alaska, an area bigger than the state of West Virginia home to so few people they’d all fit aboard the Emerald Princess cruiseship for a tour of Alaska’s Inside Passage.
After the early run fish comes a later run of sockeye that has in modern times been linked in large part to the hatchery on the Gulkana, which joins the Copper more than 100 miles upstream from the Gulf of Alaska.
With Alaska salmon runs badly depressed in the 1970s (global cooling in the Gulf of Alaska would eventually be blamed), now retired state fisheries biologist Ken Roberson started what would prove to be one of the world’s most cost-effective hatchery programs along the banks of the East Fork Gulkana.
In a 1993 report, Roberson estimated the hatchery was producing more than $5 worth of sockeye for every dollar it cost. The hatchery operated then with very little infrastructure and still does.
High on the south slope of the Alaska Range in an area where winter air temperatures sometimes drop to 50 degrees below zero, Roberson found a warm-water reach of stream where the river stayed open year round.
There, with the help of others he was quick to credit in a 1990s history of the Gulkana project, he oversaw the building of instream incubators to hold fertilized eggs taken from Gulkana sockeye.
The manmade scheme to improve on natural spawning started with 220,000 eggs in 1973 and by 1988 had grown to become the largest sockeye hatchery in the world with 35 million eggs each year churning out more than 30 million young salmon about 260 miles from the ocean.
Ned Rozell, a University of Alaska writer, once described the operation as “a high-country Eden for sockeye salmon.” If it was a good deal for the sockeye, it might have been an even better deal for sockeye fishermen.
Good old days
In 2017, state officials estimated the hatchery – which the Cordova-based PSWAC now operates under contract to the state – accounted for a commercial catch of 185,000 sockeye, about 13 percent of the Copper’s commercial harvest for the year. The hatchery contributed tens of thousands of fish more for upriver personal-use dipnet and subsistence fisheries.
And last year was a rather mediocre Gulkana return.
In 1999, the hatchery was credited with producing almost 1 million fish for harvest – 945,000 of them for commercial fishermen and 42,000 for subsistence and personal-use fishermen.
The 10-year, average, all-user harvest attributed to the hatchery then stood at more than 324,000. The average has since slipped slightly to about 300,000. And the number was expected to be way down this year with the total return to the hatchery projected at 148,000 sockeye.
It appears now that the hatchery return could be well smaller than that, which has left biologists scratching their heads wondering where the strong July-August component of the Copper River run expected to be headed for the Gulkana went.
Aerial surveys of clear-water, spawning streams found no unusually large schools of sockeye indicating shifts to other known spawning grounds, Somerville said. The fish could be still on their way to the East Fork as Botz believes or maybe hiding in the opaque, glacial mainstem.
The Copper, despite a turbidity level that makes it look more like a slurry pipeline than a river, is known to have some mainstem spawning areas.
Radio tracking studies in the mid-2000s found fish spawning in the Copper upstream from the Gulkana, but those studies also noted that the fish spawning that far upriver were usually the first fish to enter the river at the start of the season.
“An exception to this trend was the Gulkana River stocks,” it noted. “Although the Gulkana River is located higher in the drainage than the Klutina and Tazlina rivers, Gulkana River fish displayed a later run timing pattern (mean date of passage was
If a significant number of late-entering sockeye were found to be spawning in the mainstem upstream from the Gulkana, it would be unusual. But so much about the Copper sockeye return has been unusual in 2018 that in the context of the year, the unusual might be what one should expect.