The season of the salmon in the year of the COVID is not starting off well in the 49th state.
A dismal opening for the fabled Copper River salmon fishery on Thursday was followed by a better but still grim day for Cordova gillnetters on Tuesday when a 12-hour fishing period ended with landings of less than 25 percent of the day’s projected catch of about 29,000 salmon.
The more than 400 commercial fishermen who took to the water finished the day with an average catch of less than 16 fish per boat. Personal-use dipnetters on the Kenai River south of Anchorage regularly do better.
The good news was that the catch of 1,700 Chinook, the big and valuable king salmon, was near historic norms for the date. The bad news was the normally plentifully sockeye were noticeably missing.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game had forecast a weak return of the latter salmon, but not this weak. The low catches were causing a “moderate level of concern,” said Bert Lewis, the agency’s Central Region supervisor for commerical fisheries.
Fishery managers canceled this week’s regularly scheduled opening of the fishery, but Lewis noted it is too early in the season to panic. The run could be weak, but it could also be simply late.
There is some thought a nearshore band of cold water might have the fish holding offshore. Winter ice is still in the process of exiting the muddy, turbulent, glacial-fed Copper in East Central Alaska.
Few salmon in-river
Only 180 salmon are known to have gone upstream, but the low number is tied to late-season ice. An underwater sonar that usually starts ticking off salmon on May 1 didn’t go in the water until Tuesday.
Installation of the sonar array was delayed more than two weeks by ice. The conditions are unusual, but not unknown. Alaska is just emerging from the coldest winter in a decade.
Gulf of Alaska waters are warm as they have been for several years now, but “nearshore waters are cold,” Lewis said.
The conditions give both managers and fishermen a ray of hope to cling to in a year that started off with bad news for Cordova-based fishermen and then, as everywhere, disintegrated into pandemic panic.
About the time China first admitted to a “grave situation” with a previously unknown coronavirus emerging in Wuhan, Fish and Game issued a salmon forecast that predicted a total, 2020 sockeye return of just over 1.5 million sockeye, or about two-thirds the average number seen over the last 10 seasons.
The weak return was largely forgotten as the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic sucked the air out of the news everywhere, but it is echoing back now with the threat that the season could be even worse than predicted.
After a long winter without state ferry service in a state struggling with budgetary woes only growing worse by the day, angst is settling on Cordova, an isolated community of fewer than 2,300 people near the southeast entrance to Prince William Sound.
The fabled, first-of-year Copper River king and sockeye salmon have over the decades developed a cult following in fancy restaurants across the U.S.
“It’s been a moneymaker for more than 20 years,” Lewis said.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has thrown a curve into the works this year. Many of the high-end restaurants that featured and promoted Copper River salmon are shuttered in cities under lockdown, or trying to come up with a model to make their businesses work in cities that have allowed them to open at half capacity.
$115 million business
With the restaurant demand for fresh salmon crashing, prices have fallen despite a minimal supply. Sockeye worth $8 per pound at the start of the season last year are reported to be bringing only $3 at the dock this year. The big Chinook, meanwhile, have dropped from $16 to a reported $6.
At last year’s prices, the Monday catch of 1,703 kings and 4,552 sockeye would have been worth more than $700,000. This year it was probably closer to $264,000 or about $641 per boat on average.
The early season fish attract a premium, and many gillnet fishermen depend on that for a big part of their annual income. Prices later in the year fall significantly as salmon from elsewhere enter the market.
The city of Cordova has little other than commercial fishing in the way of an economy.
There is some tourism, but COVID-19 has all but killed that business in the 49th state. A mandated quarantine of 14 days for anyone arriving in from out of state appears to have discouraged nearly all tourists from gambling on a trip north.
Sockeyes and kings are the lifeblood of the 400 to 500 gillnetters who fish Copper River and the nearby Sound ever year, but the Sound also supports an important seine fishery targeted on the harvest of smallish, low-value pink salmon.
Those 200 permit holders caught almost 50 million pinks worth $58 million last year, according to state figures. Unfortunately, pink runs are strongest in odd-numbered years in the Sound, and 2020 is an even-numbered year.
The preseason forecast predicted a harvest of 26 million of the fish – just over half of the catch last year. Pinks brought an average price of 34 cents a pound last year, but Alaska salmon prices seem to be softening everywhere this year.
It could be a rough summer in the region.