Copper River sockeye show up early, give optimism for fleet
Copper River fishermen are getting a nice change of pace from the last two years this season as the sockeye run is shaping up better than expected so far.
As of June 2, approximately 240,234 sockeye salmon had passed the sonar at Miles Lake on the Copper River, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. That’s about 65,000 more fish than the cumulative management objective so far on the river, which is based on average past escapements.
It’s definitely better than in 2017 and 2018, when slow and weak sockeye runs kept commercial fishermen at the docks as managers struggled to make escapements. On the same date in 2018, only 55,840 sockeye had passed the sonar.
There’s a significant lag between fish entering the mouth of the Copper and Miles Lake, which is far upstream — about 33 miles — and the passage time can depend on the water levels, according to ADFG. There’s also a lag between the passage at the sonar site and the popular Chitina personal use dipnet fishery area, which is about 70 miles upstream from the sonar.
So far, commercial catches have been good, too; 326,257 sockeye have been landed in 2,801 deliveries. More than half of that total was landed in the periods on May 27 and May 30, with about 189,000 sockeye harvested between the two days.
It’s not a banner year, but it’s also not too shabby in the context of the last two years, said Jeremy Botz, the commercial gillnet area management biologist for Prince William Sound. The run in-river is a little ahead of schedule, but so far, the run may shake out close to the forecast estimate.
“This’d be pretty typical for timing for a peak in the fishery,” he said. “The run has been ahead of the curve, especially in-river. (It’s) right about anticipated in the commercial fishery, throughout the first two periods. We’re far enough into it now to have what appears to be a pretty reasonable fishing schedule.”
The Copper River fishing season kicks off with kings. In 2017, concern for enough king salmon escapement in the river prompted commercial fishing restrictions on the fleet that curtailed early sockeye harvest; in 2018, the run lagged through May into June, leaving fishermen in the typically first-on-the-market Copper River mostly emptyhanded. The overall run shaped up into a decent season, but only toward the latter half.
The forecast for this year in the Copper is somewhat lackluster — between hatchery and wild production, ADFG projected about 1.5 million sockeye, with wild production at just more than 1.4 million fish and Gulkana hatchery production at about 98,000 fish. If it proves true, the wild run would be about 31 percent less than the recent 10-year average and the hatchery run would be about 69 percent below the average, according to the forecast.
In the forecast, managers warned caution. While the Copper River’s sockeye salmon forecast is widely regarded as the most reliable in Prince William Sound, managers have been unpleasantly surprised in the last two years as sockeye failed to materialize in the numbers or schedule they predicted. Managers have indicated that warm water conditions in the Gulf of Alaska may have contributed to poor survival for salmon.
The Copper River has separate goals: one for the upper drainage and the other for the lower drainage, Botz said. The fish in the earlier part of the run tend to be headed farther upstream, while those in the latter part of the season tend to be more delta-bound fish.
“Last year (the run) kind of came online in the second half of the season,” he said. “That’s still a big question mark.”
It’s good news for Cordova, where a large number of the residents depend on the commercial fishing industry for their income. In general, the fleet is optimistic about the run, said Chelsea Haisman, the executive director of the Copper District Fishermen United trade group.
“Our whole community — the schools, the restaurants, the small businesses — not just the commercial fishermen, depends on healthy salmon runs, so it is a breath of fresh air for everyone here,” she wrote in an email. “The weather has been tough in the early season, but as we move into June, we’re definitely ready for some calmer days and a little more sun.”
The Copper River’s salmon run is typically the first Alaska wild salmon to hit the market and thus commands a high price. Chefs on the West Coast were reportedly asking $55 for a Copper River sockeye dish upon first delivery this May, and fishermen reportedly getting $9 to $10 per pound at the dock for sockeye and $14 for kings.
Typically, supply goes up at the season goes on and the price drops, with fishermen in other areas seeing much lower prices for their salmon by the time they come online in June. Bristol Bay typically floods the market with sockeye in June and July, pushing the prices significantly down.
It’s also a canary in the coal mine for other salmon runs across the Gulf of Alaska, including Cook Inlet and Kodiak. Last year, all three tracked together with disappointing sockeye salmon runs and widespread closures.
Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen are due to hit the water in mid-June, though some fisheries in Lower Cook Inlet open at the beginning of June. In the Kodiak Management Area, managers may announce sockeye salmon openers after June 1.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].