Weak run of kings could impact sockeye harvests

Minimum threshold escapement goal for Chinooks in Copper River district is 24,000 fish

Forecasts of a very weak run of Chinook salmon have commercial harvesters worried that they will lose a lot of Copper River sockeyes to meet the escapement goals for kings.

“We’re trying to figure out ways we can fish on the sockeyes and stay away from the kings,” said Jerry McCune, president of Cordova District Fishermen United.

While the kings are prized, Copper River reds are the bread and butter of the fishery, which is expected to open either on May 15 or May 18.

In the wake of a meeting earlier in April of CDFU with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, CDFU was to meet with ADF&G again on April 28 to further discuss options.

CDFU is still talking with the state agency about how, if there are a lot of sockeyes, they can be harvested without impacting the escapement of kings upstream, McCune said.

Commercial harvesters have done well on sockeyes for the past five years, although escapement goals for kings were not met in 2015 or 2014.

With a forecast for a very weak run of some 29,000 kings to the Copper River district, the allowable commercial harvest is set at 4,000 kings, said Jeremy Botz, area management biologist in Cordova for ADF&G. The minimum threshold escapement goal for the kings is 24,000 fish.

“That’s the preseason planning; the run could be stronger or weaker,” Botz said. “We won’t have enough information to assess the strength of the run until the second week.”

Meanwhile, ADF&G has proposed an expanded inside closure area that would close the vast majority of inside waters.

“It is a substantial expansion of the inside closure area in regulation,” Botz said. “The last two years we expanded on the eastern end of the district. This year we are proposing to expand it over to the western side.” The decision would be reflected in the first announcement on the Copper River commercial salmon fishery, which the agency hopes to put out this coming week.

“It’s a very complicated situation,” Botz said. The agency is anticipating the possibility of the lowest Chinook harvest in the Copper River district since statehood, and the management actions anticipated are above and beyond anything they’ve done before to assure the required escapement of kings upriver.

The commercial fishermen are concerned about losing opportunity on sockeyes and are trying to figure out the best way to balance that out, Botz said. Upwards of 500 boats are already registered for the fishery.

Right now it’s all still speculating, said McCune, a veteran of over 50 years in the commercial fishery.

“They are talking about one fishing period a week… They can cut down on time or close areas, but we have to know what kind of run we are having to start with before we start throwing around what we are going to do.

“Here it is harder to judge the king run because we won’t be fishing inside where the kings are, so we’ll have to wait until the fish get up the river and go through the fish wheel,” he said.

On the other hand, “if you start catching a lot of kings in the ocean, you’re having a king run,” he said. “We’ll do our part on the kings and see what the sockeyes do.”

Another concern for McCune is that some of the commercial boats are not ocean going and will have a rough time of it if the weather gets bad. McCune himself has a 33 and a half foot long fishing boat, but there are a lot of others, the 26 – 28 footers, that could take a pounding on bad weather days, he said.

Another commercial harvester, who spoke on condition of anonymity, expressed concern that too great an escapement of sockeyes in an effort to achieve sufficient escapement of kings could result in competition between red and king salmon for spawning areas.

Sources within ADF&G said that research into the cause of declines of king salmon in Alaska fisheries has not shown such competition for spawning areas to occur.

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Margaret Bauman is a veteran Alaska journalist focused on covering fisheries and environmental issues. Bauman has been writing for The Cordova Times since 2010. You can reach her at mbauman@thecordovatimes.com.