Harvesters hoping the third time’s the charm

After cancellation of the third Copper River period, ADF&G okayed a 12-hour opener on Memorial Day

A fishing vessel near Cordova Harbor. (May 18, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Light winds, fog and rain spread over Prince William Sound as veteran harvester Bill Webber headed out to sea on the eve of the Memorial Day opener for the famed Copper River wild salmon fishery, hoping perhaps that the third time’s the charm.

The third time, that is, because the first opener on May 14, and the second opener on May 18 proved so below the forecast that Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists halted the anticipated third opener on May 21, then decided on May 22 to go ahead with a third 12-hour opener on Monday, May 25.

“The wind isn’t bad, maybe 15 miles an hour, a little foggy, a little rainy,” said Webber, owner of direct-to-consumer Paradigm Seafoods, from the helm of his boat, as the vessel moved through the inside waters toward middle of the Copper River Delta in late afternoon on Sunday, May 24.  “I think I can feel what lies ahead. If the Copper River picks up and Prince William Sound, we may be able to pull a season out of it.”

ADF&G biologists said the cumulative sonar count through May 21 was 4,918 fish, compared to the 16,438 fish projected by that date.  The first two 12-hour periods brought processors an estimated 6,025 sockeyes and 3,255 king salmon, state biologists said.

The 372 deliveries from the first opener on May 14 included just 1,473 sockeyes and 1,552 Chinooks. Then on May 18, there were 412 deliveries, with 4,552 sockeyes and 1,703 Chinooks. The projected harvest for the second period alone had included 28,590 reds.

Webber said he felt the first opener on May 14 was a bit premature, given the winter weather still out there, but now he and others will be ready to begin when that 12-hour opener begins at 7 a.m. on Memorial Day.

“This community needs a nice little bump,” he said. “Cordova has been coronavirus free, but still it feels like it will cripple people economically.” That crippling effect extends all the way to the restaurant Webber supplies in New York, which is closed for now, and other restaurant clients, some of which are going out of business. 

A fishing vessel near Cordova Harbor. (May 18, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Still Webber, ever the optimist, allowed how he has picked up a couple of new business accounts, one in New York and another in San Antonio, Texas.  “All I want is for my world to go around and those I interact with, for their world to go around too,” he said.  “I totally believe we were way in front of the run this year [with the first two openers].”

While the sonar counts are nothing pretty yet, “we’ll see what we can do and hopefully we will do a little better,” he said. “You’ve got to get out and see what’s out there.”

Early reports said that some processors were paying just $3.50 a pound for freshly caught Copper River sockeyes and $6.50 a pound for Copper River kings. Most Alaska retail shops meanwhile were offering refreshed, previously frozen sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay at $9.99 a pound.

If the fish weren’t yet cooperating, efforts of state health officials and residents to keep the novel coronavirus pandemic at bay seemed to be working.

As of Sunday, May 24, the total number of Alaska residents infected by COVID-19 stood at 408, with 358 of these people recovered and with no new cases reported for the resident population or nonresident cases within the 24-hour period ended at midnight on May 23.  The number of those hospitalized stood at 45 and the number of deaths at 10.

Four new cases of COVID-19 infection were reported on Saturday, May 23, including two in Wasilla, one in Nome and one in the Northwest Arctic Borough. State health officials also reported two new cases of COVID-19, one in Douglas and one in Nome, on Friday, May 22.

A total of 42,507 people in Alaska have now been tested, with those test numbers growing daily.