Copper River closes for a week after poor sockeye showing

  • Trident Seafoods President of Alaska Operations Vic Scheibert, left, and CEO Joe Bundrant hold up one of the first Copper River king salmon of the season before it was prepared for first responders in Seattle. The fishery was closed for a week after poor numbers of sockeye salmon were harvested in the first openers that began on May 14. (Photo/Courtesy/Alaska Airlines)

It’s been a very rough start to what was already a harried season for Copper River salmon fishermen.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers announced the Copper River District will be closed for commercial fishing during the regular 12-hour period scheduled for May 21 due to very low initial sockeye catches indicating a lack of fish.

Early indications for the May 18 opener show fishermen harvested 1,698 chinook, which Area Management Biologist Jeremy Botz described as “low,” but just 4,550 sockeye, which Botz called “dramatically low.”

Subsistence gillnetting will remain open during the commercial closure, but waters inside the expanded Chinook closure area will be closed to all harvest.

Botz said that while it has been a late and cold spring and weather deterred some fishing May 18, department officials expected a harvest of more than 28,000 sockeye based for that day based on the overall forecasted run.

The total harvest from the first two 12-hour openers was 3,250 chinook, 6,023 sockeye and a handful of chum.

Botz said May 19 that the sonar at Miles Lake used to enumerate Copper River sockeye had just been installed and was up and running.

Managers expect fishing to resume May 25 with the time and area being announced May 22, according to the closure announcement.

ADFG biologists initially forecasted a smaller Copper River sockeye run of 1.5 million fish this year compared to a 10-year average of 2.1 million wild fish. The Gulkana Hatchery supports a small portion of the annual Copper River sockeye run.

The department’s official forecast estimated a commercial sockeye harvest of 771,000 fish versus a harvest of 1.2 million sockeye last year.

The Copper River chinook return and harvest was initially expected to be strong with a total run of 60,000 fish and an all-fishery harvest of up to 36,000 fish possible.

The early harvest figures this year are reminiscent of 2018 when the sockeye harvest averaged just 8,660 fish over the first three periods. Subsequent fishing closures limited the commercial catch to 44,400 fish in 2018; however they allowed the run to surpass minimum escapement goals with 701,577 sockeye counted at Miles Lake that year.

Adding to the challenge for fishermen are lower prices for the salmon they do catch, a direct result of the restaurant closures largely in the Seattle area imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Botz said ground prices for the first period May 14 was $3.25 per pound for sockeye and $6.25 per pound for chinook.

In recent years the price for famed Copper River chinook has been significantly higher; Botz noted it was around $10 per pound last year and the ex-vessel price averaged nearly $13 per pound in 2018.

Botz said there is speculation that an improving retail market could boost prices for subsequent periods.

Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle was advertising Copper River king salmon for $74.99 per pound at the time of this writing. Copper River sockeye was selling for $49.99 per pound at the renowned market.

On May 20, 10th and M Seafoods in Anchorage had no kings for sale but was selling sockeye for $30.95 per pound.

Botz and Cordova District Fishermen United Executive Director Chelsea Haisman both said participation in the fishery was down slightly from previous years but not much.

Botz estimated it was 85 percent of normal and Haisman surmised about 70 fewer boats than last year participated in the first openers based on delivery totals.

There were 372 deliveries made May 14 and 412 made May 18.

Haisman said logistics complications delayed some fishermen from fishing and others have been slow to participate because of the cool spring.

She said there is still some ice flowing downriver from Miles Lake.

“Our hope is that it’s just early and time will tell,” she said.

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Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
05/20/2020 - 8:42am