The bell curve that no Alaskans wanted to see flatten started late, peaked early and is now falling fast as state fishery managers begin to worry about whether they will be able to meet spawning goals for Copper River sockeye salmon.
The big, muddy glacial river near the Canadian border in east-central Alaska was supposed to have welcomed more than 268,000 sockeye salmon by now, but only 62 percent of that number have made it back despite sharply restricted commercial fishery openings off the mouth of the river.
Prized worldwide by foodie fans of wild salmon, first-of-the-season Copper River sockeye and Chinook salmon are counted on as early-season money makers in the tiny coastal fishing port of Cordova at the southern edge of Prince William Sound.
Not this year.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game data shows the season for Copper River fish basically ended this week with a catch of but 71,370 sockeye and 5,751 Chinook, or what Alaskans more often call simply “kings.”
And a goodly number of those Copper River kings weren’t actually fish headed for spawning grounds on the river. They were feeder kings from elsewhere – possibly Cook Inlet but more likely Southeast Alaska or British Columbia, Canada – snagged in gillnets in the Gulf of Alaska off the mouth of the river.
The catch of immature kings helped explain an average weight of under 13 pounds. That was about 80 percent of the average weight of the kings in 2018, and another 20 percent cut into the earnings of a fishery that already fallen victim to the global pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Fancy restaurants in major U.S. urban areas traditionally drive demand for Copper River kings and sockeyes and demand drives price. When state fisheries managers forecast a dismal return of Chinook in 2018, prices paid fishermen for those fish skyrocketed.
Fish and Game data shows Cordova fishermen enjoyed a record payday that year with an average dockside value of $12.91 per pound. Prices took a significant drop to $8.93 per pound last year, but remained well above the 10-year average of less than $6 per pound that preceded the 2018 panic buying.
This year, unfortunately, the white-tablecloth restaurants were shuttered as the world locked down to slow the spread of the deadly COVID-19 disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, and as a result prices for Copper River fish plummeted.
Fishermen were reported to be getting $6 per pound for Chinook and $3 per pound for sockeye when the season began. Prices did creep upward slightly as the season progressed, but they were well below normal in a fishery where dockside values traditionally start high and then fall steadily as other Alaska salmon fisheries open and more wild fish become available in the market.
Suffice to say, it has been a grim May and early June in Cordova. Direct-to-the-market salesman and skipper Bill Weber at Paradigm Seafoods called it the “slowest season start-up in my 53 years of fishing the Copper River Delta” and kept promising clients it had to get better.
There was hope then that this was a sign of things to come. It wasn’t. It turned out be nothing but the high point in a dismal year.
With catch numbers from the second of those opening slightly down and a sonar that counts fish entering the opaque waters of the river showing a serious lack of salmon, state fishery managers had no choice but to shut down the commercial fishery offshore and reign in the upriver, personal-use, dipnet fishery that opened Sunday.
The popular Chitina fishery expected to run daily for much of June got only a 24-hour opening. It won’t reopen again until Thursday, and then for only 84 hours with plans for future openings still unclear.
There were hopes that sonar counts would remain strong into this week but they instead took a nosedive. The Monday count was almost 4,000 fish behind the day’s goal, and the 6 a.m. count today indicates that Tuesday is likely to be thousands of fish behind Monday.
No one knows what is driving the decline, but the Copper is not the only system seeing weaker than normal returns of sockeyes and Chinook. The widespread slump is suggestive of poorer than expected survival in the ocean, the black box of salmon management.
Working in the dark
Salmon spend most of their lives at sea, but scientists have a very limited idea of what transpires there. Difficult to conduct ocean research has long been overlooked in favor of easier to manage freshwater studies, although Canadian scientist Richard Beamish, who some consider the godfather of Pacific salmon research, has been leading a valiant effort to change that.
Fellow Canadian scientist David Welch and a team from Kintama Research Service in Nanaimo, British Columbia, now have a paper undergoing peer-review that chastises the scientific community for long ignoring the ocean science of salmon.
The paper caused something of a stir when it first saw the light of day on the preprint service BioRxiv last year, largely due to its suggestion that the biggest problem facing struggling Pacific Northwest salmon stocks is not dams or habitat degradation but ocean survival.
“We found that marine survival collapsed over the past half century by a factor of at least four-to-five fold to similar low levels for most regions of the West Coast,” it reported. “The size of the decline is too large to be compensated by freshwater habitat remediation or cessation of harvest, and too large-scale to be attributable to specific anthropogenic (human) impacts such as dams in the Columbia River or salmon farming in British Columbia.”
The paper has been having a difficult time in peer-review because most of the scientific community is wedded to the idea that dams and dams alone are responsible for major declines in West Coast salmon returns in general and those of the Columbia River in particular.
It has, however, long been known that warmer conditions in the North Pacific Ocean benefit Alaska salmon runs at the expense of Canadian and Lower 48 salmon. The Northwest Fisheries Science Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) traces the documentation of this phenomenon back to 1997.
Sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska and to the west have generally tended warm since the start of the 1980s, and Alaska salmon have been the big beneficiaries. Annual state salmon harvests have increased from an average of about 50 million salmon per year in the 1960s and 1970s to 122.4 million per year in the ’80s, 157.6 million per year in the ’90s, 167.4 million to mark the first decade of the new millennium, and 181 million per year in the decades just passed.
Along with their being more salmon, however, there has also been a shift in species composition with more and more of the harvest being pink salmon, the smallest of the five species native to North America.
In a study now scheduled for publication in the peer-reviewed Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, Brendan Connors from Fisheries and Oceans Canada along with fisheries science researchers from the U.S. Pacific Northwest suggests that profusely abundant, at-sea pink salmon are reducing other salmon species via competition for food.
“…We present evidence that the magnitude and direction of climate and competition effects vary over large spatial scales,” the paper says. “In the south, a warm
ocean and abundant salmon competitors combined to strongly reduce sockeye productivity, whereas in the north, a warm ocean substantially increased productivity and offset the negative effects of competition at sea. From 2005 to 2015, the approximately 82 million adult pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) produced annually from hatcheries (almost all in Alaska) were estimated to have reduced the productivity of southern sockeye salmon by 15 percent on average.”
The sockeye stocks that have been benefitting in the north are those of Bristol Bay, which witnessed several record returns in the century just ended.
Elsewhere it has not been so good. The Copper got a decent return of sockeye last year, but 2018 was a disaster and 2017 only slightly better.
One hundred miles to the west, the story was much the same for the many streams and rivers feeding Cook Inlet. The situation got so bad there in 2018 that state fishery managers not only closed the Inlet to commercial salmon fishing, but also banned fishing with rod and reel on the Kenai River, the state’s most famous salmon river.
The poor 2018 run came after a 2017 scare when the fish arrived late. The state did manage to meet spawning goals in both years, but catches were low. The 2017 commercial harvest of 1.8 million sockeye was 56 percent of the 10-year average harvest of 3.2 million, and 2018 saw a disastrous commercial catch of but 814,000 sockeye.
Chinook returns similarly faltered, although sockeye-driven closures in the commercial fisheries did help the state squeak past its minimum spawning goal for kings in 2018 and put the return in the mid-range of the goal in 2017. State policy is to manage those monster salmon as a sport fish, but there is significant by-catch in commercial set gillnets off the mouth of the river when the sockeye fishery is going strong.
The world-famous Kenai kings have all sorts of problems. They have been shrinking in size for a decade and regularly struggling to meet spawning goals.
Seattle-based scientists Greg Ruggerone, one of the co-authors with Connors on the sockeye salmon study due to be published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, has hypothesized that Chinook populations are also depressed by competition from pinks.
The theory, in general, holds that pinks – now by far the most abundant salmon species in the Pacific Ocean – are the sheep of the ocean pastures grazing food resources down to levels that make it hard for Chinook and coho salmon, the cattle of the sea, to survive.
Many runs of Alaska Chinook look to be in big trouble this year.
The little fished return of early-run kings to the Kenai River is lagging far behind a 2018 return that came up 900 fish short of the minimum spawning goal of 3,900 fish. There has been no commercial harvest of those fish to date, and no in-river sport harvest.
A few were caught early in the troll fishery in Cook Inlet, but Fish and Game ordered that fishery closed on June 3. The closure sparked no appreciable increase in the return of fish to the river.
At a time when early-run kings should be passing an in-river sonar counter by the hundreds, they are entering the river at the rate of 18 to 91 per day. The cumulative count of 668 big fish as of Monday was 48 percent of the 1,385 on the same date in 2018, the year in which the river failed to meet the spawning goal.
Fishery managers remain hopeful for a big spurt of fish in the next two weeks, but the numbers do not look good. Farther to the south on the Kenai Peninsula where both the Anchor River and Deep Creek have been closed to fishing, the story is much the same.
Historically big attractions for Alaska anglers in May and early June, the two streams are almost devoid of kings this year. As of Monday, only 210 kings had been counted entering Deep Creek, and the Anchor, which home to a much larger population, had 374.
The minimum spawning goal for the Anchor is 3,800 kings. The river did meet its spawning goal in 2013 after witnessing an early return similar to that of this year, but normally there are 2,000 to 5,000 or more fish in the river by June 8.
Farther to the west, Chinook returns to Kodiak Island streams look to be doing better than in the Inlet, but returns of sockeye to Kodiak are lower than normal. They are not, however, as depressed as those on the Copper and farther south along the coast.
State numbers show only two sockeye in the Situk River near Yakutat. In a good year there would be 1,000 to 15,000. The Situk seen low early numbers before, but that is usually not a good sign. There were only five in the river on June 8, 2018. Fisheries were restricted, but the final return fell 3,000 fish short of the minimum spawning goal of 30,000.
That marked the first and only time in the decade the return fell short of the minimum; it had often gone over the maximum of 70,000.