Supporting the Long-Term Survival of Copper River Salmon and Alaska Native Traditions

A crane lifts a new culvert into place. Photo: Melissa Valentin.

With $4.3 million in NOAA funds, the Copper River Watershed Project and the Eyak Corporation are removing barriers to fish passage, opening more streams for salmon spawning and subsistence fishing.

NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Habitat Conservation is investing in the long-term survival of one of the world’s most prized fish: Alaska’s Copper River salmon.

With gourmet chefs paying upwards of $90 per pound for the flavorful fish, Copper River salmon play a crucial role in the region’s economy. The salmon support a $20 million commercial fishing industry and provide millions more to local communities through related jobs.

The fish are also the lifeblood of Alaska Natives, who rely on subsistence fishing to feed their families and maintain their ancestral traditions.

However, Copper River salmon numbers are declining. NOAA and its partners are addressing a significant threat to the fish by removing barriers that block access to spawning grounds and cold-water rearing habitat for juveniles.

In 2023, the Copper River Watershed Project completed a NOAA-funded project that opened up more than 70 stream miles to migratory salmon.

Eyak Tribal Member Tiffany Beedle holding a 35-pound King (Chinook) salmon she processed for the Native Village of Eyak Subsistence program. Photo: Tiffany Beedle.

This summer, the project will work with the Eyak Corporation, an Alaska Native village corporation, to break ground on new fish-passage projects. The $4.3 million in funding for these efforts comes from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act. 

The partners will:

  • Remove four road culverts blocking fish passage at road-stream crossings.
  • Create engineering designs for restoration projects at 12 additional sites.
  • Open up 31 stream miles and 740 lake acres to migratory fish once all projects are complete.
  • Improve the Eyak Corporation’s ability to manage restoration projects through staff training and other support.
  • Reduce the risk of flooding and washouts on roads that provide the only connection between isolated communities and important resources.
  • Improve local access to subsistence fishing opportunities.

What Makes the Copper River Special

The Copper River watershed encompasses about 26,500 square miles—roughly the size of Ireland. It’s one of the last remaining intact watersheds in the world. Every year, 2 to 3 million salmon return to the river to reproduce. All five Pacific salmon species—Chinook, coho, sockeye, pink and chum—as well as steelhead make the journey. No dams block their progress and the surrounding habitat is unmarred by industrial logging or mining.

The Copper River watershed supports a strong subsistence way of life—both Alaska Native and local community members regularly participate in subsistence fishing. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that 90% of households in the Copper River watershed use salmon. Each household harvests about 318 pounds of salmon annually.

“Salmon are a way of life for us and have been since the beginning,” said Tiffany Beedle, an Eyak Tribal member and Cordova Office and Lands Manager for the Eyak Corporation. “They provide food for our families and create income for Alaska Natives who use salmon for other purposes like making jewelry. Our ability to replace these culverts so salmon can continue upstream allows us to continue to fish and hold on to our culture.”

Participants in the Community Coastal Experience internship program stand inside a stream simulation culvert. Photo: CRWP.

Threats Facing Copper River Salmon

Copper River salmon are not listed under the Endangered Species Act. But people who have fished the river for years have noticed a decline in the number and size of salmon and an uptick in disease. “My grandpa used to catch 75-pound Kings (Chinook),” Beedle said. “Now you’re lucky to get a 40- or 30-pounder. I worked in the salmon industry eight or nine years ago and even then I saw salmon with tumors inside.”

NOAA Fisheries allocated more than $34 million for disaster declarations in the Copper River and Prince William Sound salmon fisheries in 2018 and 2020. Ocean warming, the residual effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, polluted runoff and habitat fragmentation harm salmon.

Through this effort, NOAA and its partners can address river barriers that prevent Copper River salmon from completing their life cycles. NOAA Fisheries and Alaska Department of Fish and Game scientists also conduct important ocean surveys to monitor juvenile salmon abundance and conditions that provide important insights on ocean survival.

Few roads cross the watershed. However, for every two miles of road, a stream is forced to flow underneath it through culverts. Many are undersized and poorly designed, limiting the fish’s ability to move between the estuary and spawning and nursery grounds.

This particularly hurts the survival rates of juveniles, which may stay in freshwater for three or four years before returning to the ocean.

The collective impact of many stream barriers cutting off migration routes can be disastrous. Copper River sockeye, for example, return to 126 different spawning sites and have eight genetically distinct populations.

Blocking access to one or more of those spawning sites results in fewer fish and less genetic diversity. A shallower gene pool makes adapting to warming temperatures and other environmental changes harder for the species.

NOAA and the Copper River Watershed Project have collaborated on culvert replacement projects in the past, but recent funding has accelerated the pace of restoration. Last summer, the project removed the highest priority fish passage barrier in the watershed by replacing two undersized culverts on the Little Tonsina River with a bridge. Now coho and Chinook can migrate through an additional 70.4 miles of habitat.

This year, with funds from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act, they’ll start removing and replacing four culverts. Design plans for seven additional projects are in the works.

They’re also using their expertise in barrier removals and grants management to help the Eyak Corporation advance two construction projects and five design plans with NOAA funds.

In Alaska, for-profit native corporations were set up to manage lands allocated to Alaska Native people. The Eyak Corporation, the largest private landowner on the Copper River Delta, uses its resources to benefit its shareholders, which includes Eyak Tribal members living in Cordova.

“The great thing about our new partnership with the Eyak Corporation is that it opens up a whole new road system where we can fund restoration work,” NOAA Marine Habitat Restoration Specialist Erika Ammann said.

The Copper River Watershed Project and its partners documented more than 200 culverts on streams with the potential to support salmon. To determine which sites to prioritize, they developed a tool to identify the watershed’s most problematic culverts on streams with high-quality salmon habitat.

They also considered which sites could best support subsistence fishing or protect infrastructure.

Stream Simulation Culverts

Old narrow culverts that constrict water flow will be replaced with “stream simulation” culverts wide enough to fit the full stream, including its banks. They’re also deep enough to allow contractors to place stones and other material inside to mimic a natural stream bottom.

“Basically, we want anything traveling through the stream to not realize it’s passing under a road,” Copper River Watershed Project Program Director Kate Morse said. “We want a structure that can pass large volumes of water, sediment and debris, and also provide fish passage at low-water volumes.”

The projects are engineered to be passable by the slowest moving fish—baby coho. Adult salmon may be able to jump over an obstacle, such as a culvert perched several feet above the water level. But a 2-inch-long juvenile wouldn’t make it.

If baby fish can’t pass, they won’t be able to escape dangerous stream conditions, forage for food, avoid competition or make it to the ocean.

Stream simulation culverts also help protect access to remote communities and infrastructure by reducing the risk of catastrophic road failures. Central Alaska has experienced multiple 100-year floods in the past 20 years due to increasing precipitation and glacial melt.

Energetic flows on the dynamic, glacially fed Copper River easily wash out roads and erode land. In 2006, heavy flows washed out the road at the Little Tonsina site and drove the original culvert 150 feet downstream. Right now, the road leading out of Cordova, Alaska toward fishing and hunting grounds ends at mile 36. In 2011, a bridge over the Copper River failed due to erosion, cutting off access to the rest of the road. It has not been replaced.

The NOAA award to the Eyak Corporation is supporting staff training in grant writing, GIS (geographic information system) use and other skills, while funding a new staff position.

Morse has been mentoring Beedle in all things related to managing restoration projects on Eyak lands.

“Kate has so much knowledge about fish passage, grant writing and creating partnerships,” Beedle said. “This is huge for tribal members and shareholders because subsistence fishing is so important for us. I was able to hire a part-time assistant, so now I can get out into the field and pretty much just shadow Kate.”

“Building capacity within the Eyak Corporation can benefit programs beyond fish passage work,” Morse said. “Tiffany, for example, can take the grant-writing skill set she’s gaining on the job and apply it to her other leadership roles with the corporation and Tribe.”

“I’m on the tribal health board, so now I can pursue grants for our health clinic,” Beedle said. “It’s a Native clinic, but we provide services to the whole community.”

Hope for the Future

“I was not fortunate enough to have been born here, but when I landed in Alaska, I realized that there are not many places like the Copper River on this planet,” Morse said. “It’s very difficult to restore ecosystem integrity when it’s lost.”

“However,” she continued, “I feel like we have a fighting chance with this river. We don’t have major irrigation diverting water or major dams being proposed. There are no giant communities or city development. We still have a chance to keep this watershed functioning and protect the tradition of harvesting salmon for the future. It’s very special to be a part of that.”