No sooner had the Alaska commercial salmon season begun amid reports of sky-high prices for Copper River kings and sockeyes than fishing was put on hold for lack of fish.
Gillnetters were sitting idle in the tiny port of Cordova Monday with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game saying the sonar count of salmon that should be entering the river is a tiny fraction of what it should be, and a sockeye catch of less than 12,000 during a fishery opening Thursday only about 40 percent of what was expected.
Part of the problem might be the weather.
After a string of winters that had Alaskans thinking serious climate change might have arrived in the north to stay, something approaching winter normal returned to Eastern Alaska this year.
As a result, spring breakup has come slowly to the Copper. The river is still running so much ice that the state has been unable to install one of the two sonar units – one on the north bank and one on the south bank of the river – that count fish entering the glacially turbid drainage.
“The south bank has had giant icebergs coming through,” regional commercial fisheries supervisor Bert Lewis said Monday. Managers have been afraid to employ the sonar for fear it will get crushed and destroyed by the ice.
With only the north bank sonar operational, the count of the escapement of fish in the river stood at only 423 fish on Sunday. Even if that were doubled, tripled or quadrupled to account for the missing south bank sonar, the resulting number would still fall way, way short of the goal of 8,000 fish by May 22.
Bad start, weak year
Longtime Cordova fishermen do note that cold water normally delays the entry of fish into the river, and ice-filled water is invariably cold. Lewis said the conditions make it too early to pass judgment on whether the return to the river this year is going to be even weaker than the less-than-rosy preseason forecast.
The annual prediction that came out in February called for a total sockeye return of 1.43 million, about two-thirds of the 10-year average return. But salmon forecasts usually aren’t much better than weather forecasts.
As the Alaska Fish and Game concedes, the predictions “are inherently uncertain and are primarily used to gauge the general magnitude of expected runs and set early-season harvest management strategy.”
Harvests do usually fall somewhere within the range predicted by the state agency, but the upper ends of the ranges tend to be at least double the lower ends and sometimes more than that. The Copper’s sockeye range this year stretches from 900,000 to 1.9 million sockeye.
The management goal calls for getting a minimum of 656,000 of these fish past the sonar, which doesn’t leave much for commercial harvest this year if the return is near the lower end of the range.
The 656,000 goal is intended to buffer in-river subsistence, personal-use and sport fisheries if the return is weak. The goal is almost 300,000 fish over the minimum spawning need of 360,000.
Despite the weak return to date, Lewis said he expects managers will decide to let the commercial fleet fish its regularly scheduled fishing period Thursday. At this point, the commercial catch is the best indicator as to the number of fish staging off the mouth of the river.
“You’d like to see a climb (in the catch),” he added.
Managers had hoped to see such a climb on Sunday with the second opening of the commercial season, but the catch actually came in lower than that for the first opening on May 16.
“The fish just weren’t moving,” Lewis said.
Winners and losers
With sockeye salmon stocks booming in Bristol Bay on the southern edge of the Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska sockeye stocks have been in a slide for years. Last year was a near disaster for commercial gillnetters in Cordova.
“The actual Copper River sockeye salmon run was well below average with very little fishing opportunity during the first month of the fishery and the ninth smallest commercial harvest in the past 50 years,” Fish and Game reported at the end of the season. “The sockeye salmon commercial harvest of 397,700 fish was 68 percent less than the 10-year average harvest of 1.25 million fish.”
The weak return followed a trend from Kodiak Island south along the coast to Oregon. Canada’s Fraser River, once one of the biggest sockeye producers on the West Coast, was a disaster.
Canadians have pointed at Alaska and blamed some of the problem on the interception of south bound salmon in 49th state fisheries, but Alaska harvests can’t begin to account for the number of missing Canadian salmon.
Others have blamed warming North Pacific waters, but the evidence to support that theory is lacking unlike in Bristol Bay where scientists have documented the increased survival and growth of young sockeye in lakes due to warming.
This appears to be driving the explosion of sockeye in the Bay.
The state has forecast an unprecedented return of 75.3 million this year, “44 percent larger than the most recent 10-year average of Bristol Bay total runs (52.09 million) and 111 percent greater than the long-term (1963–2021) average of 35.73 million fish. All systems are expected to meet their spawning escapement goals.”
The forecast calls for a run so big the harvest could reach 61.82 million fish, almost 10 million sockeye more than the 10-year average for the size of the total run.
“A Bristol Bay harvest of this size (would be) 75 percent greater than the most recent 10-year average harvest of 34.24 million which has ranged from 15.38 million to 42.94 million, and 170 percent greater than the long-term average harvest of 22.22 million fish (1963 to present),” state biologists say.
A run of this size would dwarf the cumulative return predictions for all Gulf of Alaska sockeye systems in 2022.
Some have linked the Gulf decline to the explosion of pink salmon fueled in part by Alaska hatcheries. The theory is that the pasture is overloaded with salmon and that in the competition for food, sockeyes are the biggest losers.
As with the possible consequences of warm water, the theory is hard to prove. The North Pacific ecosystem is mindboggling in its complexity with hundreds of species competing with each other for food and often feeding on each other.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – in cooperation with the Canadians and the Russians, at least prior to the war in Ukraine, and West Coast states – has now begun an effort to untangle the secret lives of salmon in the ocean, but definitive answers to the consequences of warmer waters and interspecies interactions are years away.