No fish




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.

Bad news

“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 2020 catch was the lowest on record. The final tally barely topped 100,000, according to Fish and Game. 

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.

Big downer

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.

Fish and Game biologists predicted a wild fish return of but 37,000 Chinook – near 75 percent of the 10-year average – and about 1.3 million sockeye – less than two-thirds of the 10-year average.

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.

The 20-year average harvest was 1.3 million through 2010, according to Fish and Game. It has fallen since.

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.

Pink prices averaged 39 cents per pound in the Sound last year, according to Fish and Game data.

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. 











16 replies »

  1. Nattering Nabobs of negativism…how many seasons has the upriver number come up short and how many times have the upriver users ended up with increases in their limits because an over abundance of fish passed the counter?

  2. Best prices ever, if only the fish would show, a paradox indeed. What is troubling, here we are surrounded by millions if not billions of dollars of technology and the fishery is still principally managed on a 50 year old harvest schematic which just keeps ratcheting downward. It is almost ridiculous. Begin comprehensively addressing what’s happening out in the gulf. After all, the benefits far outweigh resource loss as not only is Copper River looked at, but, Southeastern (I’ll take flak on that), Cook Inlet, Kodiak, direct discharge drainages to the Gulf, anyone in for throwing in some of Bristol Bay too(??). So, which economics are we after all or just one? Naivete is one of my suits, thank you just the same, but, sticking my head in the sand is not. There are more educated fish biologist scientists freshwater-saltwater than what or better put, why isn’t this expertise put to use for such an all encompassing issue? Assuredly a cornucopia of problems will arise. Who knows, maybe more than one problems woes could be addressed or at a minimum at least identified. Unless that’s done you’re all, acronyms included, complicent in likely a future of less than 15 cents per pound humpies, while all the rest of us by such device are collateral damage. Where can this start? Directly in the echelon of the Guv, our elected backyard who appoints Chief Managers/Scientists. By the time, based on past performance all of the other agency acronyms get involved into “stitching the quilt together”, stack the boats with humpie gear as surely it comes back to roost with all of us still collateral damage in one way or another. Yup, choir practice.

  3. The Slana catch has been showing evidence of this for several years now, that’s why I could never understand the past sonar counts, and commercial yearly crying about over escapement. Guess no one in charge cared enough.

    A new study of dozens of wild fish species commonly consumed in the Peruvian Amazon says that people there could suffer major nutritional shortages if ongoing losses in fish biodiversity continue. Furthermore, the increasing use of aquaculture and other substitutes may not compensate. The research has implications far beyond the Amazon, since the diversity and abundance of wild-harvested foods is declining in rivers and lakes globally, as well as on land. Some 2 billion people globally depend on non-cultivated foods; inland fisheries alone employ some 60 million people, and provide the primary source of protein for some 200 million. The study appears this week in the journal Science Advances.

  5. Nature is pretty resilient,but at some point,the view point should/may change from”This is a cycle,to this is a problem”.
    Finding the funding for research could be very problematic.
    And thats the real tragedy,we just couldnt afford the bologna vs fillet mignon comparison.
    Or worse,didnt want to investigate…

  6. A sockeye salmon is worth as much as a barrel of oil once again, while a king is worth four times a barrel of oil! Supply and demand at work. Meanwhile you can buy a pickup truck load of pinks for the same price. Amazing, simply amazing!

  7. Wasn’t everyone on here (a few months ago) making fun of a national publication that said Alaska’s wild salmon were facing an extinction?
    Well, it is worse than just the salmon…we are facing a biosphere collapse.
    Events like the Deep Water Horizon and leaky gas lines in places like the Cook Inlet have destroyed the Oceans.
    This pollution (think thousands of shipping vessels burning nearly unrefined oil for decades) along with over harvest has destroyed the salmon’s ability to maintain a healthy population.
    Alaska needs to buy back those Cook Inlet permits and allow what few fish there are left a chance to regain a foothold.
    The tourists will not return to the Valley in any meaningful numbers until the salmon fishing is restored in SC and it the Copper River is any indicator that will not be happening for quite a while.

    • Far more hydrocarbons seep from the ocean floor than humans spill.
      Fortunately, microscopic sea creatures have evolved that ingest and live off the energy of hydrocarbons. Until that was figured out, the scientists studying the Deep Water Horizon leak couldn’t figure out where the majority of the oil went. Turns out most of it was eaten.

      The biosphere doesn’t collapse, it adjusts to changing conditions.

      When humans increase the population of pinks, mother nature reduces the other species competing for the same food, both fish and birds. So, it turns out we humans have some limited control over the number and size of some competing ocean species. Unfortunately we decide how we will exercise our limited control using a very messy political process.

  8. Have never understood the push to raise Bologna(Pinks) rather than Fillet Mignon(Reds)………

  9. Templin’s “correlation is not causation” statement will go down in Alaska’s history as the biggest fisheries science and resulting management blunder of all time. The commercial fishing sector in PWS made a colossal mistake which may go down as the reason for the final collapse of the Chinook / Sockeye runs in the Copper River.
    That’s what happens when commercial fishers and their umbrella organization, UFA ,dominate the Alaska Board of Fisheries which then makes policy decisions favoring the few over the many.

  10. Maybe its time to stop dumping billions of pink fry into PWS yearly and turn that production to onshore RAS systems and allow PWS runs of other salmon to recover. Cheers –

  11. The Cordova commercial fishermen are so incredibly out of it in terms of what is happening in front of their eyes it defies description. Ignore the science and keep your heads in the sand are their mantras. This is the one group of people who could really make a difference and here they sit on their hands. But then again, after this fishery fails they look forward to those fifteen cent Pinks.

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