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.”
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 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.