Copper River harvest hits 429,630 fish and rising

Restaurant, retail prices holding fairly steady for fresh sockeyes, kings

Sunrise on the morning of the May 16, 2019 Copper River opener. Harvesters are optimistic in the wake of the shortened 2018 season. Photo by Sherman Powell/for The Cordova Times

That sixth opener was the charm, “a very welcome relief for this fleet,” said drift gillnet harvester John Renner.

“It appears to be a larger run than predicted,” said Renner, in a phone call from his Cordova home on Wednesday, June 5, in the wake of the 36-hour opener of the 2019 Copper River commercial salmon season, which ended at 7 p.m. the previous evening.

“The fish are also large and healthy, indicating a larger component of older fish,” Renner said.

“They are spread out across the flats offshore and onshore. “

Nets were filling mainly with sockeyes and the king run was moderate, “which is why we are having those inside restrictions, with all the inside closed,” he said. “Normally the ends of the Copper River flats are open to fishing, but they are closed to conserve some extra kings and give us an opportunity for a stronger than anticipated sockeye return.”

The weather also cooperated for the extended sixth opener.

“The weather has been quite crappy until this last opener,” he said. “Last period it was very benign. Very nice. You could fish right on the outside beach.”

Prices on the ground for fishermen were $14 a pound for sockeyes and $18 a pound for Chinooks on the first opener May 16, but by the sixth opener, processors had dropped that to $3 a pound for reds and $7 a pound for kings.

And has Renner tasted one of those fresh Copper River kings yet?

Nope.

“We were selling every fish, but we finally saved one and ate it after the price dropped,” he said. “That was a sockeye. I haven’t eaten a king yet. They are just worth too much money.”

“With the tight season last year, every fish is appreciated,” he said. “We needed a little shot in the arm and this is an opportunity to pay off some bills.”

In the wake of a 36-hour opener, prices notwithstanding, Copper River salmon aficionados remained eager to buy, and as of June 4 retail prices remained hefty for those fresh Chinooks and sockeyes.

Sue Phoummany of 10th & M Seafoods in Anchorage fillets a fresh Copper River sockeye salmon on Friday, May 30, 2019. Shoppers were snapping the fillets up at $21.95 a pound. Photo by Margaret Bauman/for The Cordova Times

Preliminary harvest figures posted June 5 by Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists in Cordova showed the Copper River commercial salmon harvest reaching some 429,630 fish, including 11,420 Chinooks, 408,140 sockeye and 10,067chums, plus a single humpy and a single coho salmon, in a total of 3,379 deliveries to processors. For the sixth period alone, the catch included 577 deliveries that contained 1,248 kings, 81,650 reds, 954 chums and that lone silver salmon.

ADF&G also announced a 48-hour Copper River opener to begin at 7 a.m. on June 6, concluding at 7 a.m. on Saturday, June 8

The diminished harvest periods appear to be over.

By June 1, the Cordova office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was reporting a cumulative sonar count through May 31 of 202,464 fish, compared to the projection of 141,930 fish through that date.

Preliminary harvest data for the fifth opener on May 30 showed a catch of 1,612 Chinooks, 94,000 sockeyes, 2,095 and a lone humpy, for a total of 98,203 fish brought to processors in a total of 592 deliveries. The projected harvest for the fifth period was just 39,900 sockeyes.

The fifth opener brought the total preliminary harvest to 345,641 fish, including an estimated 10,169 kings, 326,357 sockeyes, 9,113 chums and two humpies.

That’s good news for harvesters who sweated out the 2018 season, which came to an abrupt end in May, with a commercial catch of sockeyes the second lowest in 50 years. Fisheries biologists put the blame on the “Blob,” a mass of warm water present in the Gulf of Alaska from 2014 through 2016.

The 2018 preseason commercial harvest for the Copper River district included 942,000 sockeye, but the commercial harvest of 44,400 fish proved 97 percent less than the recent 10-year harvest average of 1.29 million sockeye salmon and the second lowest harvest in the last 100 years. The average sockeye salmon weight of 5.1 pounds per fish was the second smallest on record.

Entrée prices for Copper River salmon were holding steady at fine dining restaurants in Anchorage like Jens, where a fresh grilled Copper River king fillet cost $50, and at Orso, with Copper River king fillets for $48.95 and Copper River red fillets were $38.95. Retail prices were also holding steady in seafood shops. Copper River sockeye fillets were $21.95 a pound at 10 & M, $46.95 a pound at FishEx, and $41.99 a pound at New Sagaya. Copper River king fillet prices were holding at $59.95 a pound at 10th & M and $86.95 a pound at FishEx. 

Fred Meyer supermarkets in Anchorage offered fresh Copper River sockeye salmon fillets this past week for $16.99 a pound. Photo by Margaret Bauman/for The Cordova Times

Fred Meyer supermarkets in Anchorage had Copper River sockeye fillets on sale for $16.99 a pound, a drop from the week’s regular price of $39.99 a pound.

Costco stores in Anchorage dropped their prices on fresh Copper River sockeye fillets a dollar to $13.99 a pound. At the famed Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, Copper River king prices dropped four dollars, putting the tab for whole kings at $35.00 a pound and king fillets at $45.99 a pound. The price for whole fresh Copper River sockeyes fell from $99.95 each to $63.96 a pound, and a pound of fresh Copper River sockeye fillets was $25.99 a pound, down from $29.99 a pound.