Finally a hint of good news for the isolated fishing port of Cordova that has been in a tailspin since fall when a cash-strapped state of Alaska cut ferry service.
Then came COVID-19 – the deadly pandemic that has now killed more than 350,000 worldwide and is threatening to strangle the global economy – followed by the first SARS-CoV-2 infection in the remote, off-the-road community of 2,200 at the southern end of Prince William Sound.
By then the world was already in a full-blown pandemic-panic lockdown that led to the closure of the high-end restaurants across the country that had been willing to pay top dollar for artfully promoted, first-of-the-season Copper River king (Chinook) and red (sockeye) salmon.
With the spend-happy buyers out of the picture, the price paid fishermen for Copper River salmon fell by half or more, and then the worst happened: Almost no fish showed.
Skipper Bill Weber called it the “slowest season start-up in my 53 years of fishing the Copper River Delta” and promised his online, direct-sale customers at Paradigm Seafoods the fish had to come sooner or later.
They finally did on Monday.
The day’s catch wasn’t a monster harvest by Copper River standards, but the catch of almost 1,500 Chinook and nearly 34,000 sockeye, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data, was almost four times the combined catch of the first two openings of the season.
With everyone fretting the “new normal” of he Age of Covid, it was good to have at least a little of the old normal back if only for a day. And it was a big improvement on last week.
A regularly scheduled fishery opener set for last Thursday was canceled as state fishery managers bit their lips and worried about the small number of salmon escaping into the river. The numbers at the agency’s fish counting sonar upriver from the Gulf of Alaska flats where the fish are caught were looking better on Tuesday, but far from great.
Monday’s sonar count of 6,116 salmon was the best of the year to date, but it was only 54 percent of the goal for the day, and the cumulative count for the year is now more than 35,000 salmon behind the curve.
Area management biologist Jeremy Botz was holding off on a decision on this week’s regularly scheduled Thursday opening, but it appeared unlikely.
“Offshore fishing held up for most of the (fishing) period, so I think that this is a good sign of more fish in the pipeline,” he emailed. The stronger sonar count on Monday was “a great sign,” he added, “but it is difficult to say at this point how the run is going to continue to perform.
“The early run appears to be a bit late and compressed and will likely continue to build towards peak-run entry through next week, but to what extent the run will build is still highly uncertain.”
The state manages the run for a May 30 peak of almost 129,000 salmon in-river. As of Tuesdays, managers were about 109,000 fish short of the mark, but it is not uncommon to see days when 20,000 or more salmon swarm up the turbid, muddy, glacial river that drains most of eastern Alaska, including the 13.2 million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park – the nation’s largest wilderness reserve.
“With the large upward shift in Monday’s harvest, this sockeye salmon run does appear to support a minimum of one short-duration fishing period a week,” Botz added, ” and I would anticipate opening the commercial fishery again next Monday at the latest.”
This week’s Monday opening averaged just over three Chinook and 75 sockeye for the 448 limited-enter permit holders who landed fishing. Nobody was getting rich, though the shortage of Copper River salmon at the start of the season is reported to have helped boost prices a bit.
Fishermen were reported to be getting about $4 per pound for sockeye on Tuesday and $7 for Chinook – up about a $1 per pound for each from earlier but nowhere near last year’s early-season prices of $8 per pound for sockeye and $16 per pound for Chinook.
Outlook less encouraging
Before the season began, the state was forecasting a less than stellar year on the Copper. The season estimate is for a return of just over 1.5 million sockeye, about two-thirds the average number seen over the last 10 seasons.
The forecast for Chinook – the big fish up to 40 pounds that come back in much smaller numbers than the 5- to 6-pound sockeye – was for a return of 60,000, about 20 percent above average. Early catches appear to be tracking with that forecast.
Some believe the sockeye run may have been delayed by late ice in the river and cold offshore waters early in the month, but the old rule in fisheries management is that if the salmon are late it is usually because the run is weak.
Salmon returns form a classic bell curve, something with which everyone is now familiar thanks (or not) to the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for COVID-19. A late-arriving run usually means a smaller bell.
Cordova fishermen are hoping that is not the case. This is one curve they definitely don’t want flattened.
Upriver from Cordova, subsistence salmon fisheries are only just starting, and the first opening of the popular, Alaska-resident-only Chitina Dipnet Fishery is tentatively set for June 7.
The opening is contingent on enough salmon passing the sonar to provide fish surplus to the upriver spawning goal. A final decision on whether that fishery will open on schedule won’t be made until early June.
So-called “food security” operations for tens of thousands of Alaska residents, the personal-use fisheries could be more important to more people than ever this summer. The state’s April unemployment rate of 12.9 percent was better than the national mark of 14.9 percent, but the state’s problems were just starting then.
The Alaska economy is highly seasonal, and it is now in big trouble.
The $4.5 billion tourism industry looks to be in the tank. Cruise ships have canceled summer sailings to the state; some major tourist hotels have closed; and a 14-day quarantine required of anyone arriving in from Outside makes that before-you-die vacation to Alaska look too much a gamble for most people.
The commercial fishing industry is heading into the season of the salmon – the most valuable fish in-state – worrying about the processing plant outbreaks of COVID-19 that have off-and-on shutdown fish, fowl and meat processing plants around the world.
And the oil industry, long the anchor of the Alaska economy, is struggling with a global oil glut that has driven crude prices toward the basement as countries shutdown to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, and then wrestle with the question of how and when to reopen.
But at least the salmon are back.