Good news for dipnetters: A strong, early push of red salmon in the Copper River has prompted the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to open the Chitina dipnet fishery ahead of its normal June 10 start while adding bonus fish to the catch.
The fishery, according to a Fish and Game press release, will open on June 7 and run through 11:59 p.m. June 8. A supplemental harvest of an extra 10 red salmon will be allowed during this period.
Dipnetters will legally be required to remove their nets from the water for only two minutes between Sunday night and Monday morning before the fishery reopens 12:01 a.m. June 9, running through the entire second week of the month. Fish and Game is officially classifying the June 9 opening as tentative at this time, but there is little doubt it will happen given the flood of fish charging into the eastern Alaska river.
The Copper run started about a week early this year and has been strong since the get-go. By mid-month, salmon were flooding into the river at 20 to 25 times the expected rate. The opening of the commercial fishery on the Copper River flats outside of Cordova choked off some of the return, but a lot of fish continued to swarm into the river.
As of Thursday, the sonar at Miles Lake on the lower river had counted a return of 233,978 salmon, almost twice the goal of 126,409 in-river by that date. There is no indication the run is slowing, and Fish and Game is required by regulation to provide dipnetters supplemental fish if the escapement is 50,000 fish above the escapement goal.
Last year, Fish and Game counted 1.3 million red salmon in the river by the end of the season, with a whopping 400,000 passing the sonar during four days in early June.
Escapement is the fishery-management term for the number of fish getting past gill-entangling nets to make it into the river and past fishermen.
The Chitina dipnet fishery is open only to Alaskans. Permits are free, but an Alaska resident fishing license is required to obtain one. Newcomers to the state are reminded that for fishing purposes, an Alaska resident is defined as someone who has spent 12 consecutive months in the state.
Alaska State Troopers annually hand out dozens, if not hundreds, of citations to people who arrived in the state over the winter, took up residence here, and were unaware they had to spend a full 12 months in the state before they qualified for a resident fishing license. The state is different in this regard to many others; some require only a few months to become an official resident.
Resident, personal-use dipnetters headed for Chitina -- a five to six hour drive east of Anchorage via the Glenn and Edgerton highways -- are reminded they need to pick up that dipnet permit before fishing. The regular dipnet limit is 15 reds per person or 30 per household. Dipnetters must record their catches on their permits before leaving the fishing area and cut the tails off the fish to ensure they can't be slipped into any commercial fisheries to be sold.
Regional sport fishery supervisor Tom Taube in Fairbanks said the run appears to be both early and strong, but what that means for the rest of the summer is hard to say. The early reds returning to the Copper River are predominately wild salmon, which look to be in good shape. But the returns later in the year depend significantly on the productivity of the Gulkana River hatchery.
In some years, the hatchery produces big runs to the river -- and other years not so big. And the survival of hatchery fishery doesn't always correlate with with the survival of wild fish. In 2012, for instance, the commercial harvest of 1.9 million Copper River reds was one and a half times the 10-year average, but only 18 percent of the fish were of hatchery origin. In 2010, however, when the wild run was weak, the Gulkana hatchery accounted for about a third of the entire return for the season.
State fisheries biologists earlier this year forecast a return of 2.1 million reds to the Copper, but with less than a quarter of them expected to be hatchery fish. But they also admitted predicting salmon returns is little like predicting the weather -- there is a fair bit of guesswork involved.
"The influence of environmental factors including the cooler ocean temperatures that have predominated since September 2007, and the El Niño event of August 2009 to May 2010 are factors that increase the uncertainty in the 2014 run,'' the forecast report noted.
So for fishermen, the state makes no guarantees. But that's fishing. Be happy that it looks to be good in early June at least.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com