Copper River closed again amid low counts

  • Copper River salmon fishing remained closed on May 31 as sonar counts are trailing historic averages by a wide margin. (Photo/Courtesy/10th and M Seafoods)

This year’s Copper River sockeye run is starting out a lot like last year’s, which is bad news for most everyone, except for maybe the fish that are showing up.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers closed the famed early season drift gillnet fishery for a second consecutive opener May 31 due to poor sockeye counts at the department’s Miles Lake sonar upriver from the fishery.

Just 54,154 sockeye had been counted at Miles Lake through May 31, compared to the approximately 132,000 fish needed by that date to meet the department’s in-river goal based on historical run data, according to a June 1 ADFG advisory.

However, unusually late ice flows in the river prevented managers from installing all of the sonar equipment ahead of the run, meaning the counts for roughly the first week of the run are incomplete.

Similarly, the May 24 fishing period — the last of three 12-hour openers so far this year — yielded 32,227 sockeye when fishermen should’ve netted approximately 56,100 fish based on historical data.

Copper River drifters harvested 5,188 kings and 52,729 sockeye in the first three openings of the fishery, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game figures.

Cordova Area Management Biologist Jeremy Botz said in a brief interview that he is hopeful the late, cool spring has held many fish back from entering the river on a more traditional schedule.

“The Copper’s just running really cold. Some warmer water should hopefully coincide with some increased fish passage,” Botz said.

Last year’s Copper River sockeye harvest totaled just 98,300 fish for one of the worst seasons ever after fishing was shut down quickly in response to poor catches and sonar counts. This year managers expected just more than 1.3 million sockeye to return to the Copper, allowing for a commercial harvest of 672,000 fish. The 10-year average Copper River run is approximately 2.1 million sockeye.

The closures also come at a time when processors were paying some of the highest prices ever for Copper River salmon. Peter Pan Seafoods announced after the second opener that it would be paying $19.60 per pound for kings and $12.60 per pound for sockeye; prices that are several fold greater than historical averages.

Daily sonar counts from May 26 to 31 were consistently in the 7,000 to 8,500-sockeye range and Botz said if the run is going to improve significantly it should start showing in the counts soon.

“We haven’t fished for close to 10 days so we think we’ve probably got some decent numbers of fish in the river relative to what this actual run size is,” he said June 1, adding that fishing could be allowed on “pretty short notice” if the situation improves.

“We could even have an out-of-cycle fishing period,” if counts justify it, Botz said.

The Copper River district is normally open Mondays and Thursdays for 12 hours each period.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
06/01/2021 - 6:06pm