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In-river Alaska salmon fishermen absorb another blow, this time on Copper River

Craig Medred
Alaskans dipnetting in Copper River are the victims this time. The first opening of that Alaska food fishery has been canceled due to a lack of fish -- even as commercial netters at the river mouth prospered.
Craig Medred photo

Fresh on the heels of a series of the Bethel trials, at which fishermen argued that restrictions on in-river catches of salmon violated their religious right to fish, another group of Alaskans are feeling the sting of in-river salmon closures.

The victims this time are Copper River dipnetters. The first opening for that Alaska food fishery, originally set for June 7-9, has been cancelled for a lack of fish

One of the big complaints from Kuskokwim River subsistence gillnetters cited for fishing in violation of closures on that river last summer was that in-river fishermen always pay the price of conservation while offshore commercial fishermen are allowed to go about their business at will.

The situation is seldom that simple, but sometimes -- as on the Copper River this week -- it looks that way.

Just 46 salmon upriver

With only 46 salmon counted up that river so far this season, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reported "the preliminary harvest estimate from the 12-hour (commercial fishing) period that occurred on Monday, May 27, was 3,200 Chinook and 311,000 sockeye salmon....this compares to an anticipated harvest of 116,000 sockeye and 1,700 Chinook salmon for this period."

The commercial fisheries operate off the Copper River delta at the mouth of the river just south of Cordova at the southeastern edge of Prince William Sound, about 150 miles southeast of Anchorage. The "anticipated harvest of 116,000 sockeye and 1,700 Chinook salmon" to which a Fish and Game press release referred was to have been coupled to a "forecast escapement" into the river of 118,917 sockeye by May 27.

That adds up to 234,917 sockeye -- some 76,000 fewer fish than what was actually caught in Monday's commercial opening. Instead of some fish getting caught and some getting into the river, it appears virtually all of them got caught.

The commercial fishery has now been closed. State fisheries biologists are reviewing everything that’s happened in the commercial fishery so far and say they will reopen the commercial fishery only after they begin to see more fish past the sonar, which counts fish in the lower reaches of the big, highly turbid, glacial river.

Late spring, late salmon

It appears the unusually late break up of winter in Alaska this year has delayed the fish. It’s also possible some fish slipped upstream undetected because Fish and Game had trouble getting its sonar set up early in the season. The state agency on May 25 reported it had yet to install the "south bank sonar" array -- the sonar counts fish on both the north and south banks -- "due to low water and ice."

There was reported to be as much as five feet of shore-fast ice in the area at the time. Both the north and south bank sonar are now operational, but indications are that natural conditions caused the fish to hold offshore where the Cordova commercial fleet pounced on them with great success.

Cordova saw a bounty. Would-be upriver fishermen are now being forced to wait.

Since then, river conditions have changed dramatically overnight -- from problems of low water and ice to a flood. On Thursday, the gauge hit 42 feet, which is extremely high.

There have as yet been no reports of dipnetter protests, though the Fairbanks-based Chitina Dipnetters Association is not happy. The Chitina dipnetters consider themselves a "customary and traditional" subsistence fishery just like the salmon gillnet fisheries on the Kusko, but the state Board of Fisheries has instead declared them "personal-use" fishermen.

There is a key difference under Alaska law. Subsistence fisheries have a legal priority for the fish. Personal-use fisheries must battle commercial fisheries in front of the state Board of Fisheries to get an allocation of salmon. Because of the subsistence priority, the commercial Chinook fishery went out of business on the Kusko in 1987. Because of the personal-use designation, a commercial fishery continues to thrive in Cordova.

That commercial fishery is key to the survival of the economy in the coastal community. Copper River salmon are the most valuable product produced in Cordova. Fishermen were getting $4 per pound for sockeye and $6.50 per pound for the kings at the dock when the season opened. Average sockeye prices in Alaska last year were $1.16 per pound. Cordova sockeye prices will fall as the season progresses and more sockeyes from around Alaska become available.

In-river fishermen bear burden

But that won't change the fact the Copper River fish are the state's most famous salmon. That drives up their value and makes them so important to Cordova. It is also why the state manages them carefully to ensure future runs.

Fisheries biologists say there was no way to anticipate what happened on Monday. State officials would have liked to see more fish going upriver while the commercial opening was underway, but it didn't happen. Fisheries management in Alaska is complicated. Because of that, in-river fishermen -- the last in line for the salmon -- often pay the price of conservation, no matter whether weak returns are due to Mother Nature or the downstream commercial fisheries.

Bethel fishermen appear to have suffered largely because of the former last year. Chitina dipnetters appear to be in part paying a price for the latter this year, though they are expected to get their share of fish sooner or later. A healthy run of salmon to the Copper is forecast, and Fish and Game has now begun managing the commercial fishery very conservatively to get more fish upriver after what happened Monday. 

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com