CHITINA -- A cheer went up along the Copper River Monday as a dipnetter struggling in the churning, brown waist-deep water finally dragged ashore what is becoming an increasingly precious catch -- a blush-colored king salmon of more than 30 pounds.
It was one of two kings seen caught by a couple dozen fishermen hard at work, swinging or drifting long-handled nets in the murky glacial water on a dusty day beneath a 90-degree sun. It would also be among the last kings landed in the fishery this year.
Faced with a statewide king salmon crisis, state fish managers are banning Copper River dipnetters from keeping kings after midnight Sunday.
The closure comes as no big surprise. Biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game were projecting a return of only 46,000 of the big fish this year. That's down from a long-term average of 70,000 and way below the good old days of a decade ago when the river saw a total return closer to 100,000.
Zig-zagging throughout history
Weak king returns are a story across the state. No one is sure why the fish aren't coming back as they once did, but the coast-wide phenomenon of weak returns from the Yukon River in the north to the Stikine River in the southern Panhandle suggests problems in the ocean pastures where young salmon feed and grow.
Pioneering research done by Lauren Rogers of the University of Washington has shown that salmon abundance in Alaska has been oscillating for centuries. Rogers tracked the nitrogen that decaying salmon left in the sediments of 20 Southwest Alaska rivers over the course of 500 years.
"We expected to detect a signal of commercial fishing -- fisheries remove a lot of the salmon, and thus salmon nitrogen, that would have otherwise ended up in the sediments," she said in a statement to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "But we were surprised to find that previous returns of salmon to rivers varied just as dramatically."
This might not have come as much of a surprise if Rogers had been paying attention to another field of science: archaeology.
Archaeologists have long noted the fluctuating remains of salmon in the ancient garbage dumps called middens. National Park Service archaeologists working on the Gulf of Alaska coast have noted a shift in human settlement during "colder phases when salmon are reduced but sea mammals and forage fish increase" and a warmer phase "when coastal residents moved to major salmon rivers and relied on mass production and storage of this resource for winter consumption."
Most people, however, do not think in historic terms. Time is defined largely by an individual's lifetime, and for most of today's Alaskans, large and healthy salmon returns have largely been a given. Thus, it comes as a bit of a shock when nature is uncooperative.
Judge: Salmon survival comes first
Subsistence fishermen in Western Alaska last year refused to believe kings runs on the Kuskokwim River were as weak as state and federal biologists suggested and went fishing despite closures. They were in court in Bethel this spring arguing they had a religious right to do so, though a state judge there disagreed.
No matter anyone's religious rights, District Court Judge Bruce G. Ward ruled, the survival of the salmon takes precedence. And the salmon cannot survive unless enough make it to the spawning beds to reproduce. The need to meet king-salmon spawning goals -- what biologists call escapement -- has increasingly put state fisheries managers at odds with state fishermen, be they subsistence, commercial or sport.
Commercial set netters on the Kenai Peninsula were forced to sit on the beach for most of last summer and watch hundreds of thousands of valuable sockeyes swim by because biologists were worried their bycatch of a few hundred Kenai kings might be too much.
The 456 permit holders saw their gross income drop from about $20 million in 2012 to about $2 million. That's an average of less than $5,000 per permit for people who in good years hope to earn most of their annual living on Kenai beaches during the summer.
Similarly, king-salmon guides on the Kenai River weren't having it much better as the state shut them down, too, and a lot of business departed rather than chase smaller fish.
Many considered the situation grim.
"It's sort of depends on your definition of grim," said Jim Hasbrouck, sport fisheries coordinator for Fish and Game in the state's Southcentral region. "I'm not trying to be flippant...(but) it's very likely we have dealt with these kind of chinook (king) runs in Southcentral Alaska in the past."
There is little doubt about that, and state officials appear to be trying to prepare Alaskans for the possibility this might continue for some time.
Lousy start on most rivers
Early indications are the king run is every bit as weak as expected. As of Tuesday, only 2,694 kings had tripped a sonar counter near Pilot Station on the lower river. There were 4,481 there last year on the same date at the start of what was a horrible king run.
In past years, 10,000 to 25,000 of the big fish had passed the sonar by June 18. The numbers are slightly skewed this year because high water prevented biologists from installing the sonar on time, but they missed only a few days of counting and the daily count numbers track with daily count numbers from previous weak years.
The combined daily count for June 17 and 18 this year totals 2,211. The same two days last year saw 2,111 kings pass the counter. In 2009, when the river saw an annual return about 25 percent larger than in recent years, the June 17-18 daily counts stood at 7,726.
River system after river system from the Yukon south seems to be tracking this sort of reduction this year.
The Kenai cumulative count as of Monday stood at 1,025 fish -- less than a fifth of the 5,589 king count by that date in 2010 when the Kenai witnessed a good, but not great, return of 10,100 early-run kings.
On the Deshka River, one of the biggest king producers in the Susitna Valley, it is much the same story: A total of 1,683 kings passed through the weir there as of Wednesday compared to 10,000 to 25,000 back in the boom days a decade ago.
Hasbrouck noted that a late spring and flooding in some places has interfered with fish counts and may have delayed the return of fish, but the environmental conditions can't begin to account for the number of missing fish.
The good old days for Alaska king salmon have clearly morphed into the not so- hot present.
Mother Nature didn't help
From 1999 to 2003, the Cordova-based commercial harvest off the mouth of the Copper River here averaged 55,000 kings. That kind of catch this year would have wiped out the entire run, but biologists were careful to make sure it didn't.
Some help from Mother Nature didn't hurt, either. A late spring kept the mouth of the river clogged with ice in May only to be followed by a rapid break up that brought on flooding. Both king and sockeye salmon were held offshore by these events, and the early season commercial fishery hit them hard.
Between the commercial catch and natural conditions, few salmon made it into the river, which sparked some concern and forced a 14-day shutdown of the commercial fishery during the prime time for king returns. Near the end of the closure, sockeye escapements into the river set records, and enough king salmon made it that biologists felt comfortable giving the dipnetters at least couple of weeks of king fishing this year.
A minimum of 24,000 kings are considered necessary for spawning in upriver tributaries to the Copper, and with the commercial fishery having caught less than 10,000 of the 20,000 it was expected to net, and a fish wheel used to establish an index on the strength of the king run not producing many fish, officials shut down the king catch for thousands of dipnetters who annually flock to the river to stock their freezers.
But it could be worse. Dipnetters still can scoop up plenty of sockeye, or red salmon, as runs of those fish look to be holding strong around the state.
Why one species continues to hold strong while the other is in decline, of course, only adds to the mystery.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com