Unusually low returns of Chinook and sockeye salmon to rivers and streams along the northern rim of the Gulf of Alaska have fisheries scientists wondering what has happened in the wake of the 49th state’s first real winter in several years.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Richard Brenner, who oversees state salmon forecasts, is hoping for a replay of 2013, another year in which early returns started slow and then took off.
Ice and snow lingered that year, he said. May ended with fewer than 27,000 sockeye in the Copper River, a fabled salmon system draining direct to the Gulf just south of the fishing port of Cordova.
The Anchor River, a popular sport fishing stream that empties into Cook Inlet west of Alaska’s largest city, saw the return of only 12 Chinook, the big and popular salmon Alaskans usually refer to as kings.
Both rivers were far behind their early-season goals. The state’s management objective for the Copper is 145,000 fish by May 31. The 66,000 that have escaped upriver this year is but 46 percent of that goal. Still, it’s more than twice as many as at the same time in 2013.
And 2013 turned into a boom year. The Copper’s in-river return eventually hit 1.27 million, way over the upper spawning goal of 750,000.
After years and years of forecasting and monitoring fickle Alaska salmon runs, Brenner said, he’s learned not to panic too soon, but there was a hint of concern in his voice. And he wasn’t the only biologist getting a little nervous.
Everyone knows the two options at this point: Returns are late, or they are weak.
“If it’s not late, we’re really in trouble,” Tom Vania, the regional sport fisheries supervisor for Southcentral Alaska, said Tuesday.
Worried about the latter, the state has ordered the marine fishery for kings in Cook Inlet shut down as of Wednesday. The Anchor and nearby Deep Creek will close at the same time. The latter are the two most popular bank fisheries for kings on the Kenai Peninsula.
They are just south along the Sterling Highway from the Kenai River, the home of the world-record king salmon near 100 pounds and the state’s most famous salmon river by far.
The early run of kings to the Kena this year looks grim. Fewer than 200 kings have made it up the river so far. That’s less than two-fifths the number of last year, which was a weak run, and of the year before when managers fell 900 fish short of the minimum spawning goal of 3,900 of the big fish.
Last year, the return barely squeaked over the goal.
A big, stable, river system fed by two huge lakes, the Kenai has historically enjoyed the most predictable of regional salmon returns.
“I know for Kenai early run kings, it doesn’t vary much,” Vania said. If the fish-counting sonar doesn’t start clicking good in the first week of June, it’s invariably a bad sign.
If things don’t change by the weekend, Vania said, “we’re only looking at the (spawning) escapement of a couple thousand fish.”
Only 18 went upriver Monday. More than 125 went past the sonar on the same date last year, 109 the year before, and 272 in 2017 when the river topped the maximum spawning goal of 6,600.
To the south of Cook Inlet near the entrance to Prince William Sound, Cordova commercial fishermen were hoping for big day Monday in a season that has to date seen their fishing time halved in order to put more sockeye up the Copper River.
It was not to be.
The catch of 31,500 sockeye was not especially bad, but it was also not good. Fishery managers were hoping to see something more like twice that number to signal a big stream of salmon storming toward the river.
The regular Monday opener last year produced 81,650 sockeye, but fishery managers turned the fleet loose for 36 hours in 2019 knowing a lot of fish were in the pipeline. Fishermen got only 12 hours on Monday, and it appears likely the regular Thursday opening will be shut down as was the Thursday before.
The fish just aren’t there. The total catch last year had gone past 400,000 by June 5, The Cordova Times reported. The total catch as of Tuesday this year is 71,370, according to the lastest Fish and Game report.
Commercial fishermen aren’t making much money, and the popular sockeye fisheries due to open to average Alaska fishermen in the next two weeks aren’t looking good.
The Chitina, personal-use dipnet fishery upriver on the Copper – a freezer-filler for state residents – opens on Sunday with fewer than 80,000 sockeye in-river – less than half the goal.
The Kenai Peninsula’s Russian River – the state’s most popular rod-and-reel fishery for June sockeye – opens four days later, but Vania warned no one should get their hopes too high.
The state doesn’t count Russian sockeye moving up the Kenai River on their way to that tributary, but the king salmon sonar does keep track of smaller salmon – most of which are Russian sockeye.
“We’re nowhere near where we were last year looking at those small fish going by,” he said.
Overall, Vania added, “it’s tough to say at this time. It is still early. (But) it doesn’t give you a warm feeling.”
The Russian run last year was, of course, phenomenal. The fish came early, and they came strong. By the time the fishery opened on the now traditional start date of June 11, there were already almost 14,000 sockeye in the small, clearwater stream about 105 miles south of Anchorage, and they kept pouring into the river to the tune of 5,000 per day for a week.
The surge tapered off in the last week of the month, but 1,000 to 3,000 sockeye per day continued to show up until well into July. By the time the run was totaled, 125,942 had been counted through the Russian River weir – about three times the upper spawning goal of 42,000.
This year is looking more like one of those seasons when the old-timers on the river get to tell the newcomers “you should have been here last year.”
Still, there remains a glimmer of hope.
For sockeye at least, Brenner noted, behavior is often dictated by spawning maturity. Sockeye that spend three years in the ocean usually arrive back at Alaska rivers hot to spawn, he said, but two-ocean sockeye sometimes aren’t ready.
“They can be on the cusp of being reproductively read to spawn,” he said, “and stay out a little longer. That could make the appearance of a late run.”
Fishermen, cross your fingers.
Cordova needs 3-4 days of 25,000 through the Miles lake sonar to get anywhere close to “normal”. Best so far is half that. This week is the traditional peak. Grim.
Must be Global Warming. Actually, this who Covid nonsese might be a blessing in disguise. Just a reminder.
The sockeye catch of over 55 million topped expectations by 33 percent, or about 14 million fish, and is the FOURTH largest ever.
Bristol Bay accounted for 78 percent of that total and at a value of $306.5 million is the MOST VALUABLE HARVEST on record.
The Alaska Peninsula caught 7 percent of the sockeye harvest, Prince William Sound was at 5 percent, with Kodiak and Cook Inlet contributing 4 percent of Alaska’s sockeye haul.
For pinks, a catch of about 125 million is 91 percent of the forecast and the 8TH LARGEST on record.
Prince William Sound’s catch at over 47 million was 38 percent of the statewide total, followed by Kodiak at nearly 35 million and 26 percent.
The Alaska Peninsula and Southeast each contributed 16 percent of the total pink catch.
A harvest of over 17 million chum salmon is the 16th largest ever, with Southeast taking 42 percent, Prince William Sound at 31 percent, the Alaska Peninsula at 8 percent and the AYK region took 7 percent of the chum total.
For cohos a harvest of 3.4 million is 22 percent off the five year average.
Southeast produced nearly 40 percent of the coho catch at 1.3 million followed by Prince William Sound and the Alaska Peninsula, both at 15 percent.
The Chinook salmon catch of about 255,000 was slightly higher than last year but among the lowest since 1975.
Southeast took 63 percent of the total at 178,000 with Bristol Bay second at 32,000 kings.
Historically, low abundance or extinction of fish species had been as a result of over harvest somewhere. There is an unmistakable trend taking place in Cook Inlet. Chinook returns continue to go down. All the manipulations done by the Managers and Scientists in ADF&G to reduce escapement goals using models that essentially claim that less results in more have resulted in there being less, not more. These manipulations were to protect the Dept from claims of mismanagement. But now people are beginning to realize that the Dept’s decisions were to facilitate the commercial fisheries ability to over harvest.
Instead of restricting the ESSN fisheries that were killing Chinook with drop outs and not reporting their “ home pack” they turned a blind eye. Instead of restricting the seine fisheries out of Kodiak that were catching large numbers of Cook Inlet Chinook the Dept turned a blind eye. Instead of restricting the set net fisheries in the Inlet near Anchorage which have been notorious for catching Chinook, the Dept closed the in river fisheries.
The Dept is not the only agency at blame. The Council has for years allowed excessive Chinook harvest by the trawler fleet which harvest is thrown overboard and literally wasted. Observer coverage has long been gamed to falsify the true by catch numbers.
The net result of all these failures by agencies charged with managing for sustained yield is what we are now seeing. A collapse of the Chinook fisheries in South Central Alaska.
And it now appears that will soon be the case in PWS. Managers have overstocked the Sound with Pinks for years and we are now seeing the consequences of putting literally billions of hatchery pinks in the waters to compete with wild stocks. While at the same time State managers use cliches such as “correlation does not mean causation”. What a joke that management strategy is!
Alaska’s management of some of its fisheries may go down in history as a model of colossal failure.
I agree with a lot of that! The escapement goals are too low, the conservation of minority stocks have insufficient for too long. Resilience has been lost.
You spread the blame pretty thick for overfishing salmon. I totally agree that all of those fisheries contribute to some extent. One thing I think is obvious is that people targeting salmon catch the most salmon and generally are not covered by law enforcement or fisheries observers heavily or at all. I will add in defense of trawlers that some skippers may attempt to “game” their numbers but the only way to keep the fishery open is for them to fish as clean as possible. I won’t go into depth on the formula used to calculate partial coverage observing but I will say that it is much more challenging to game numbers than most people think.
If the problem truly lies with commercial fishermen doing what they’ve been doing for decades I am sure that it wouldn’t have taken until 2020 for the situation to deteriorate this far. The most probable factors to me would be environmental, which I think all user groups would agree have gotten worse. The second most likely in my opinion would be new entrants to the sport or subsistence fishery. Just go down to the boat launch in homer around the Fourth of July. From 4am until midnight you will see a traffic jam of sports fishermen launching. No one knows where the fish they catch are headed. Targeting the largest halibut and king salmon they can find.
You got a bunch of things right here, and couple things way wrong. The number of people fishing is irrelevant. The only thing that matters at the end of the day is how many fish are being killed. It’s simple population dynamics.
The biggest environmental change came at the end of the 1970s and brought us more salmon. We’ve been riding that wave for a long time. There is sign of environmental deterioration anywhere.
Wonder if this recent even/odd year swing has caught anyone else’s attention, especially out in Cordova. Pinks are also on an even/odd year rotation.
We have systematically decimated our King fishery. The bycatch of the Cook inlet fisheries have all contributed to this. In addition, the sportfishing industry keeping the brooding stock for decades has not helped. Catch and release is a joke. How many fish will actually spawn after being molested? How many people actually know how to catch and release…or execute the procedure properly? It is over. If you have lived in the state and fished for 20 plus years you know what I’m talking about. I wont even mention what the pollack fishery has done….Anyone that has been keeping kings in the last decade should be ashamed of themselves. What is funny, the sportfishermen are the last user group in the chain, have the smallest impact, and are the first ones punished. Whoever has the biggest war chest wins…. the sad truth is, we are all losers
Having first fished the Anchor in ’73, the downward spiral saddens me. However, 210 Kings have returned as of 1June, not just 12(probably a typo). Closing the Anchor and Deep Creek was a sound management decision. Unfortunately, this will put added pressure on the Ninilchik River whose numbers aren’t great either………..