After a disastrous 2018, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is forecasting an increase in the number of salmon returning to the fabled Copper River this year, but there’s a caveat.
“This forecast is uncertain and should be interpreted with caution as poor runs of many Gulf of Alaska sockeye salmon stocks in 2018 suggest there is considerable likelihood of over-forecasting in 2019,” says the forecast calling for a return of 1.4 million of the fish.
Alaska salmon forecasts are uncertain in the best of times. The forecast range on this one is 1 million to 1.8 million. Such wide ranges are normal. The 1.4 million prediction is the 80 percent confidence level within the range of variables used to calculate possible run sizes.
When everything is fine, the forecasts work fine.
Last year was far from fine.
“Historically, the forecast of Copper River sockeye salmon runs has been the most accurate forecast produced for any salmon species in the Prince William Sound area,” this year’s forecast notes. “However, the 2018 Copper River sockeye salmon forecast of 1.88 million fish, produced using methods as described above, resulted in an over-forecast in excess of 1 million
Crash and burn
The result turned out to be a disaster, though that wasn’t clear at the start.
The first May fishery openings brought low catches low and high prices. The former is not all that unusual. The latter was unprecedented even for the Copper, which has branded itself superbly.
“First-of-the-season” Copper river reds and kings, known as Chinook to much of the rest of the world, are considered a culinary treasure.
“Thanks largely to spirited marketing campaigns devised by some daring Seattleites, Copper River salmon has climbed the fish ladder to our wallets,” Seattle Times reporter Alywn Scott gushed way back in 2001. “Over 20 years, it has risen from tin-can fodder to gourmet fare, doing for the humble fish what Starbucks did for coffee.”
Since then, the Copper River brand has only grown. What was once a focus largely on kings has broadened to their smaller and more plentiful cousins, the sockeye.
That transition was only beginning 18 years ago when Scott wrote that “no one disputes that Copper River fish tastes different. Migration up the steep, rugged river produces a high fat content and healthy omega 3 fatty acids in the deep-red fish. Although other varieties, including the less pricey Copper River sockeye, also have those qualities, Copper River kings, being the first fish of the season, capture the spotlight.”
Science has pretty much put the kibosh on the taste issue, which is largely tied to “high-fat content.” And the high-fat content in wild fish is largely tied to how far they have to swim upriver to reach natal spawning streams.
Copper salmon have to go a few hundreds miles at most. Some Yukon River king salmon go more than 2,000 miles to spawn in Canada. Yukon chums also travel long distances.
Some far-upriver bound kings caught in the lower Yukon river have been known to show fat content of about 30 percent of body weight, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
More fashion than food
The latter is near the fat count of Copper kings, and Copper sockeye have even less fat.
And then there are farmed fish, the couch potatoes of salmon. Some argue they have an unhealthy amount of fat.
“Farmed salmon is much higher in fat, containing slightly more omega-3s, much more omega-6 and three times the amount of saturated fat. It also has 46 percent more calories — mostly from fat,” Health Line reports.
The high fat content could be why farmed fish won hands down in a Washington Post blind taste test of wild and farmed salmon, but none of this appears to have done anything to weaken the Copper River brand.
First-of-the-year Copper salmon aren’t just food; they’re a fashion statement. Chefs across the country vie to get in on the Copper River show.
Thus when the fish started off in short supply last year, dock prices for Copper sockeye quickly climbed to an unheard of $9.50 a pound. A Seattle fish monger was selling whole, headed and gutted sockeye for $159.96 or about $32 per pound retail, and the fish were selling out as fast as they arrived.
Some gillnetters in Cordova, the fishing capital of the Sound, were thinking that once the fish showed in force, they were going to enjoy a bang-up season. Only the fish didn’t arrive.
Closures of upstream personal-use dipnet fisheries and sport fisheries on the Copper followed the commercial closure, though there would be some openings in all the fisheries late in the summer after an unexpected pulse of tardy fish.
Meanwhile, to the north, sockeye runs to the Kenai River, another big sockeye producer, were also faltering. Commercial fishermen there would do better than their Copper River counterparts but not much before being closed early for the year with dipnet and sport closures following.
Though the New York Times suggested Alaska was falling victim to a climate change disaster, it wasn’t. Spawning goals on both the Copper and Kenai were met, and there was some harvest.
The year was more of Mother Nature throwing a curve ball. Scientists are still trying to figure out why. Sockeye runs from Southeast Alaska north around the rim of the Gulf of Alaska to Chignik on the Alaska Peninsula were weak.
But Bristol Bay in far western Alaska saw the largest sockeye return on record, and the Fraser River near the border between Washington state and British Columbia, Canada, witnessed a return of more than 10 million sockeye, a huge improvement from the less than 1 million fish of two years earlier there.
Everyone is hoping for the return of something closer to normal this year.
Cordova fisherman James Mykland believes area fisheries biologist Stormy Haught was being very conservative with the forecast after a couple of years of Copper River chaos, and that has led to some optimism in the fishing community that the return might come in better than forecast.
And the king salmon estimate of 55,000 is the best in several years at almost 20 percent above the 10-year average. The allowable harvest is 31,000. That should provide enough fish for regular May openings in the commercial fishery, and there’s no telling what unbelievable prices those kings could bring dock side this year.
The projected commercial harvest of sockeye is 756,000 with another 200,000 available to be caught upriver in the personal-use dipnet, subsistence and sport fisheries.
As forecast, the sockeye return is only 69 percent of the 10-year average, but still way better than last year turned out to be. The run to the Gulkana Hatchery near Paxson on the Richardson Highway in Central Alaska is, however, projected to be a bust.
Haught is expecting fewer than 100,000 fish returning there, nearly 70 percent less than the 10-year average. The calculation is based on an anticipated fry to adult survival rate of 0.61. In good years in the late 2000s, the hatchery saw return rates up to five times higher at 3.18 and return rates of two to two and a half were common.
The good news for commercial fishermen in the Sound is that another strong return of pink salmon is expected. The forecast of 23.6 million is 68 percent above the 10-year average, and the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Association, is forecasting the return of another 22.3 million to its hatcheries.
The Valdez Fisheries Development Association, which runs another big hatchery operation, has yet to post a 2019 forecast, but it is expected to be in the range of 15 million which would bring the total Sound return of pinks to more than 60 million.
“All sockeye salmon stocks examined exhibited a downward trend in productivity with increasing PWS (Prince William Sound) hatchery pink salmon returns,” they wrote. “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.”
Commercial fishermen, however, told the state Board of Fisheries in October that they are happy with the way things are now and don’t want hatchery production constrained.
Hatchery fish today account for about a third of the “wild” salmon caught in Alaska, state fisheries biologist Bill Templin told the board. Having outlawed salmon farming, the state has made a significant component of its fishing industry dependent on salmon ranching, another form of aquaculture.