Third time was the charm

Fifth opener cancelled for commercial fishing, while open for subsistence harvesters

A fishing vessel navigates Cordova Harbor. (May 12, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Light winds, fog and rain spread over Prince William Sound on the eve of a 12-hour Memorial Day fishery, then turned overcast during the holiday, as the commercial fishing crews netted some 1,467 Chinook and 33,752 sockeye salmon.

The catch boosted the total harvest to date to an estimated 45,537 fish, including 4,935 kings and 39,823 red salmon, well over five times the individual catches on May 14 and May 18. The first two 12-hour openers were so slow that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game cancelled fishing for the third opener on May 21. Now the fishery appears to be picking up speed.

“It’s still not good,” said veteran harvester Jerry McCune, president of Cordova District Fishermen United, who expressed doubt about the possibility of ADF&G allowing a harvest for the fifth opener on May 28.

“We have to see some improvement on the escapement (to the rivers) numbers,” he said. “We’re getting further behind every day. Hopefully things will pick up in June.”

What’s needed, said McCune, is a study of the out migration of the sockeye salmon, to find out if the problems lie in the river systems or the ocean.

Another Cordova veteran, harvester Bill Webber, also appeared doubtful about the possibility of fishing in the fifth opener. An announcement on that was expected on Wednesday, May 27.

Webber said that he had looked at the latest Miles Lake sonar sheet count, which told him the salmon were still behind on escapement.

“I don’t think they will give us another fishing period until they start seeing an upward bump in the sonar count,” he said.

Veteran Cordova harvester Bill Webber in the Copper River Delta during the fourth Copper River salmon opener. Photo courtesy of Paradigm Seafoods

Concerns expressed by McCune and Webber were confirmed on Wednesday, May 27, when ADF&G cancelled commercial fishing for the fifth opener on Thursday, May 28, while leaving it open for 12 hours of subsistence fishing.

Webber was sticking with his earlier gut feeling that the fishery simply began too early this year. Still, there are definitely fish entering the Copper River Delta area now, the area where he has been fishing, he said.

“It’s a good scratch fishery,” Webber said. “Some got 125 (fish) on their first set.”

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 collectively 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.

“This community needs a nice little bump,” said Webber on the eve of the fourth opener. “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. 

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.”

A fishing vessel near Cordova Harbor. (May 12, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

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 to keep the novel coronavirus pandemic at bay seemed to be working, as Alaska reopened for business, while stringent preventive mandates remained in several communities, including Cordova.

As of Tuesday, May 26, the total number of Alaska residents infected by COVID-19 stood at 411, with 362 of these people recovered and two new cases reported for the resident population in the 24-hour period ended at midnight on May 25.  One was in Anchorage and the other in Sitka.

State health officials said two nonresident cases in Anchorage were identified in seafood industry workers, who are listed separately from the Alaska case count. That brings to a total 17 nonresident cases, of which 12 are in the seafood industry.

A total of 44,964 Alaskans have now been tested for the virus.

The number of those hospitalized remained at 45 and the number of deaths at 10.

The highest infection counts included Anchorage, 184, including four deaths; Fairbanks, 66, including two deaths; Juneau, 31; and the Kenai Peninsula, 27, including one death

No new cases were reported on Sunday, May 24.

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.

State updates on the number of people infected and recovered are posted by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services online at www.coronavirus.alaska.gov