Copper River harvest pace remains slow

Renner: It’s not a biological crisis, it’s a financial crisis

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

More than two weeks into the 2020 Copper River commercial fishery, the pace is still slow, with an estimated 5,751 Chinook, 71,370 sockeye and 1,056 chum salmon delivered to processors by the drift gillnet fleet.

That’s a total of 78,177 fish in the four out of six 12-hour openers that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game allowed the commercial fleet to partake of, the other two being closed to allow for escapement upstream.

“It’s coming in well under the forecast for reds and kings on the Copper,” said Jeremy Botz, gillnet area management biologist for ADF&G at Cordova. “The run is coming in late, but also looking smaller than forecast. So far it has been pretty scratchy, but we have lots of potential with sockeye and chum for Western Prince William Sound.”

As of June 1, some 80,000 salmon had escaped upstream, about 80,000 less than anticipated by that time, he said.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, June 3, ADF&G announced that the Copper River District would remain closed to commercial fishing. Permit holders were advised that the fishery may open on short notice should indices of sockeye salmon abundance support fishing. A minimum of 17 hours advance notice of a fishery opening is anticipated, state biologists said.

“It’s a weak season in my humble opinion,” said veteran harvester John Renner, vice president of Cordova District Fishermen United, in the wake of the sixth opener on June 1. “The fish are just fine; there’s just not enough of them.”

Renner said he’s been worried since the first period on May 14, which resulted in 372 deliveries to processors of 1,552 kings 1473 sockeyes and 34 chum salmon, a total catch of 3,059 fish.

The biggest harvest to date came on May 25, with 457 deliveries for a total of 35,839 salmon, including 1,451 kings, 33,777 reds and 611 chums.

“It’s not good any way you look at it,” Renner said. “It’s a financial crisis for our fleet, some of them in extreme debt. It’s not a biological catastrophe, but a financial one.”

Prices to fishermen are running on average at about $3.50 a pound for reds, $6 to $7 for kings and 35 cents to 40 cents for chums, almost a 50 percent cut from what they had been, and 50 percent of the chums are going to cost recovery due to the low price of chums, he said.

Even with a low harvest, high end seafood retail shops are keeping their prices up because of the reputation for the high quality of the Copper River salmon.

Online retailer FishEx in Anchorage is pricing premium portion Copper River king salmon fillets at $78.95 a pound. Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market was sold out of fillets of fresh Copper River kings for $74.98 a pound and whole Copper River kings at $659.99 apiece, but still had whole Copper River reds for $174.99 apiece and fillets of Copper River reds at $49.99 a pound.