After three openers that yielded far less than the forecast for the Copper River’s famed Chinook and sockeye salmon, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has halted the commercial fishery, pending a boost in the sonar count.
To date, the harvest in the first three openers has delivered an estimated 60,127 fish, including just 5,259 kings, 52,752 sockeyes and 2,116 chums.
In the latest update from Alaska Fish & Game’s Cordova office on Tuesday, June 1, finfish area management biologist Jeremy Botz noted that the sonar count was the 13th lowest on record since 1978. The cumulative sonar count through May 31 was 54,154 fish, whereas 132,531 fish were projected by this date to meet the in-river run goal, Botz stated.
Veteran harvesters like Cordova’s Bill Webber, who has been fishing in the Copper River for 54 years, are wondering what impact events like the Northern Edge military exercises in the Gulf of Alaska, climate change and subsistence, personal use and sportfishing to the north may be having on returns to the Copper River. While there has been a lot of speculation on these and other possible causes for the decline in runs, no conclusive answers have come to date.
Webber said that while they have had a cold spring this year, he has seen large returns before, even in cold springs. He added that the more than 500 commercial harvesters who fish in the area are wondering too about things like whether all the munitions that end up in the water from military war games in the Gulf are impacting yearling salmon making their way out to the ocean.
They want more answers also on how climate change and fisheries to the north of the Copper River area, which include a lot of spawning grounds, may be impacting the return of salmon in the spring.
It goes without saying, he said, that some folks engaged in subsistence, personal use and sport fishing are taking too much, adding that given that it’s human nature to take more fish than you are allowed if you can, if ADF&G enforced the current laws, the fishery would be in a better position than it is today.