Dozens of commercial harvesting vessels out on May 15 for the celebrated Copper River salmon opener were greeted by calm waters and temperatures in the low 40s, but relatively few fish.
“On our first set we caught two fish,” veteran Copper River harvester Bill Webber of Cordova said.
“The sea lions got them out of the net, and they ripped a big hole in the net,” he said. “Then we moved offshore and then west, and ended up with 31 fish for the whole day, all sockeyes.”
If the fishing was slow, so was the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s effort to calculate the day’s overall harvest. ADF&G fisheries biologist Jeremy Botz in Cordova noted that the agency’s new online reporting system was not at first reporting the harvest correctly.
Processors were initially paying $10 a pound for sockeyes and $15 a pound for kings, in part due to the overall small initial harvest, according to Webber.
“The fishing was pretty slow in shallow and deep depths,” he said. “A lot of the fleet was running around all over the place trying them.”
It was foggy most of the day where Weber was fishing in the western section of the allocated district, and chilly as well, but in other areas it was partly sunny most of the day, with light winds, Botz said. Most rivers in the area were still fairly iced up.
Salmon aside, Webber noted in comments on the social media that he almost had the most tonnage for one period of fishing due to a surprise encounter with two large whales, something he had never experienced before in many years of commercial fishing.
After searching in shallow waters for fish with no success, then running offshore to try it out there, Webber said there were suddenly two large whales playing around his net.
“They knew it was there but decided to just swim up and down the length of my net, back and forth,” he said. “They eventually swam around the boat and literally under the bow of the boat while the net was out. It was like they were hanging around and playing, although scaring the hell out of me for fear of losing a brand new net.
“One of them seemed to be 80 feet long,” Webber said. “They would roll and lollygag around, waving at me with their huge flipper and surfacing many times. At one point I thanked them for their avoidance of my net and for their visit. They then turned and headed west.”
“They hung around while I picked up my net to get it out if their way. Twice,” he said. “They followed me after a two-mile run westward to get away from them and gave us another show.”
Weber said he had never before had an experience like that with whales and was grateful that he was able to save his new net.