Commercial fishermen had their nets in the waters off the mouth of the Copper River on Monday even though the return of sockeye salmon to one of the 49th state’s most fabled waterways is increasingly looking to be an even bigger bust than was forecast for this year of COVID-19.
Before the season began and before the pandemic changed everything, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game predicted a return 1.5 million of the prized salmon – less than two-thirds of the 10-year-average return.
As of Monday morning, fewer than 106,000 of those fish had shown up, and just under 40,000 had been caught by commercial fishermen in three short openings of the drift net fishery in the Gulf of Alaska.
Cordova-based fishermen dependent on the high-value, first-of-the-season salmon for a key part of their annual income are already paying the price of conservation with the loss of regularly scheduled fishery openings.
Personal-use dipnet fishermen from Fairbanks and the Anchorage metro area who annually flock to the tiny town of Chitina upstream on the big, turbid, glacial river near the U.S.-Canada border are soon expected to share in that burden of conservation.
Glennallen-area fishery biologist Mark Somerville said Monday that the 24-hour, Sunday opening of the dipnet fishery – the first of the year – will go off as scheduled. But the planned week-long opening to follow is sure to be shortened.
“It won’t be a full week,” he said.
What it will be will depend on how many sockeye make it into the river in the next few days.
The return has been building in recent days, but it is at this point impossible to tell if that is because the run is arriving late or simply climbing up the bell curve of a weak return. Fishermen invariably hope for the former, which sometimes happens.
“Those are the little tidbits of hope,” Somerville said.
Fishery managers generally accept that late runs are destined to be weak runs, which is what usually happens. Nobody has a totally reliable crystal ball.
Way, way, way behind
As of Monday, fewer than 66,000 sockeye had escaped into the river to make their way toward spawning grounds. That was but 45 percent of the goal for the end of May.
Even if the commercial fisheries had been closed, the number would still have fallen 27 percent short of the escapement goal for the date. Somerville, like his commercial fish management colleagues in Cordova, is hopeful daily returns will keep spiking upward.
The 11,144 salmon passing state sonar counters on Sunday marked the best day of the year, but their number still fell almost 4,800 fish short of the day’s goal. What fishery managers need to catch up is several days over 20,000 fish – not uncommon in the big, muddy Copper but equally unpredictable.
Given the low number of fish in-river, fishing during the first dipnet opening is expected to be slow, but Somerville said he still expects a big turnout of participants in the Alaska-resident-only dipnet fishery.
He said he has been hearing from a considerable number of people frightened by the COVID-19 pandemic and the state’s teetering tourism economy. Gov. Mike Dunleavy has announced plans to this week lift a 14-day quarantine that had been required of all non-residents entering the state and replace it with a mandatory SARS-CoV-2 test.
But whether many visitors will brave pulling on face masks and boarding an airline to see “Alaska B4UDIE,” as a state advertising campaign once proclaimed, remains to be seen.
A wide spot surrounding the junction of the Richardson and Glenn highways, the community of Glennallen, with a population now below 500, counts tourism – be it visitors from Outside as Alaska refers to the rest of the world or from the state’s two metro areas – a vital part of the local economy.
The Outside tourists generally flow by motorhome or camper from the Alaska-Canada border west and south through Glennallen to the state’s biggest city snd the salmon-rich Kenai Peninsula, or by rental car north and east from the Anchorage international airport through the community to reach the remote but road-connected community of McCarthy in the 13.2-million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
The nation’s largest wilderness, that park sprawls across the mountains just east of Glennallen. The out-of-staters come to see the sights. Few have shown up this year.
“It’s very quiet,” Somerville said, but he expects fellow Alaskans to change that.
The Alaskans are practically inclined. The swarm to the area to kill fish.
“I’m actually expecting a bit of an increase (in dipnetters) this year,” Somerville said, noting that a number of Alaskans appear to have been caught off-guard by the pandemic, a subsequent state lockdown, and a run grocery stores that sometimes left shelves empty.
Some were left worried, as he put it, about “no stuff in the freezer.”
The personal-use dipnet fisheries – first on the Copper River and later on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers – are for tens of thousands of Alaskans, are a potential answer to that problem. Salmon are there, usually, for the taking for those willing to put in the time and effort.