After more than two weeks on the beach, Cordova commercial fisherman are finally going to get another shot at a building run of Copper River salmon as what started out looking to be a great year is starting to look like it could end up a great big bust.
High prices drove the early excitement. Peter Pan Seafoods posted an offer to fishermen of $12.60 per pound for sockeye salmon and $19.60 per pound for the king (Chinook) salmon that occupy a unique niche in the market as Alaska’s “first-of-the-year catch.
The prices made up for what were lower than expected catches for the first three openings of the season, and then the bottom fell out. With few fish entering the river and the season’s catch total under 53,000 sockeye – fewer fish than were expected to be caught in a single opening in late May – the Alaska Department of Fish and Game shut the fishery down o May 25.
With the fishery closed, in-river returns to the big, muddy flow draining the mountains along the Alaska-Canada border began to creep upward and are now tracking toward goals. Regional commercial fisheries supervisor Bert Lewis said the run still looks to be weak as well as late, but Cordova drift netters will be allowed to fish a 12-hour period starting at 7 a.m. today.
Overall, the return remains almost 46,000 fish behind the cumulative goal for the date, but a return that normally peaks around the end of May is tracking toward an early or mid-June peak. Daily counts have jumped from fewer than 10,000 fish on June 1 to more than 30,000 on Monday with indications Tuesday could prove even better.
The 6 a.m. Tuesday count as the Miles Lake sonar showed 9,767 sockeye entering the river. That’s near the same number posted for the 24-hour count on June 1.
All of this is good news for both commercial fishermen, and upstream subsistence and personal-use fishermen. Subsistence fisheries are already underway with the ever popular Chitina personal-use dipnet fishery set to open on Thursday.
Given the weak return, the opening has been reduced from a week to four days. Fishing is expected to be slow given the 10 to 14 days it takes salmon to fight the current of the raging, turbid river for 70 miles from the sonar site to Chitina.
Meanwhile, the bad news for commercial fishermen is that prices for sockeye are now reported to be down around $4 or $5 per pound as both Prince William Sound sockeye and chums (sold as keta) have entered the market. Most of those are hatchery salmon, but they are sold as Alaska “wild caught” to distinguish them from “farmed salmon” grown in pens rather than released into the sea.