SUNDAY UPDATE: The Copper River sockeye return looks to have gone from bad to worse. Even with the commercial fishery closed since last Monday and high tides pushing fish into the river, the Saturday sonar count was but 56 percent of the daily goal. Worse yet, today’s 6 a.m. count continued a downward trend that started Thursday when that count should be starting and continuing to trend upward. The number of fish in-river as of midnight Saturday was but 38 percent of the cumulative goal for the date. At midday, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced the closure of the regularly scheduled Monday fishing period.
The sad story of earlier only continues.
What was shaping up as a bonanza for the commercial fishermen who mine the seas off the mouth of Alaska’s Copper River is turning into a bust with salmon worth three to four times more per pound than copper failing to show as expected.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the commercial opening for Thursday and the Monday opening is now in doubt. Fishermen forced to the beach are watching the big money they were poised to make go upriver toward the spawning grounds.
At the close of the second opening of the fishery on May 20, Peter Pan Seafoods posted a price to fishermen of $12.60 per pound for sockeye salmon and $19.60 per pound for king (Chinook) salmon.
Copper is these days trading at a third to a quarter of that at $4.68 per pound even as global demand grows to power green economies shifting from hydrocarbon power to electricity. Rising copper prices are good news for copper miners whose profits are tied more to market prices than to unpredictable resource availability.
Commercial fishermen, unfortunately, are hostage to both markets and Mother Nature, and what the markets do can become meaningless if Mother Nature fails to cooperate.
She hasn’t been cooperating, forcing state fishery managers to shut down fishing to protect spawners necessary to ensure future runs to the big, muddy river that drains the glaciers of the Wrangell-St. Elias and Chugach mountains to the sea.
“To date, the sonar count (of salmon) is the 16th lowest on record (1978-2021),” Fish and Game reported on Friday. “Cumulative commercial harvest this year is the eighth-lowest harvest to date in the last 50 years.
“(The) cumulative sonar count through May 27 is 22,461 fish, whereas 75,050
fish are projected by this date to meet the in-river run goal….Preliminary
harvest estimate from the 12-hour period that occurred on Monday was 2,000 Chinook and 32,700 sockeye….This compares to a projected harvest of 56,100 sockeye salmon for this period.”
The low catch-per-unit effort (CPUE) – a measure of how many salmon fishermen are able to catch in a fixed period of time – is troubling. It is an age-old way of assessing the strength of salmon runs.
When CPUE drops to near half of what is expected, salmon managers start to worry. There remains hope that the in-river number of fish will jump quickly with the fishery closed for a week, but as of Friday the sonar count was more than 30,000 fish behind the goal.
Some of that had to do with shore ice the prevented the installation of the south-bank sonar until Wednesday. Had it been counting fish, the sonar count might have been within 6,000 to 7,000 fish of the Friday goal.
But it is hard for fishery managers to ignore the problem with the CPUE, especially when the seemingly weak return is coming on the heels of the disastrous 2020 season.
The low catch last year, the reputation of Copper River salmon as the first fresh salmon of the year from Alaska, and some world-class marketing that has positioned the fish as the best-of-the-best the state has to offer, did help to push early season prices sky-high this year.
Now if only the fish would show.
A season starting with the second weak return in two years comes with an already mediocre forecast for the fishermen who gillnet salmon off the mouth of the 290-mile-long river draining an area the size of West Virginia along the U.S.-Canada border of the 49th state.
With more than 500,000 of those sockeye reserved for spawning needs and nearly 150,000 or so set aside to feed Alaskans who fish for food, the commercial fishery started the season eyeing a predicted summer-long harvest of slightly over 650,000 sockeye.
There was a time when that would have been considered a disaster, but it is now near spot on what Fish and Game calculates to be the five-year average.
The river’s commercial harvest peaked at near 2.7 million in 1997, according to state data, and has yo-yoed between 1.8 million and 300,000 in the years since although the catch has only four times fallen below 650,000 over the course of those years.
Scientists have theorized long-lived sockeye are losing out to short-lived pink salmon in the competitive battle for food on crowded North Pacific pastures, but Cordova fishermen – who are heavily invested in pink salmon hatcheries in Prince William Sound – refuse to believe it.
The Sound is looking at another big return of pinks this summer with a return of about 57.6 million comprised of just shy of 20 million wild fish, 20.1 million hatchery pinks returning to the Valdez Fisheries Development Association and 17.6 million to the hatcheries of the Prince Willam Sound Aquaculture Association.
Fisheries researchers have noted a correlation between weak returns of sockeye to the Copper in years with returns of more than 50 million pinks to the Sound, but as Bill Templin, the state’s chief fishery scientist has noted, correlation is not causation.