Hopes dimming for Copper River

Other Prince William Sound fisheries for salmon start to open up

A fishing vessel in Orca Inlet. (June 5, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Slow returns of Copper River’s prized sockeye and Chinook salmon are dimming hopes of coming anywhere near the forecasted catch, as commercial fisheries open up in other areas of Prince William Sound.

The forecast issued by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game spoke of a sockeye run of 1.5 million fish in 2020, compared to the 10-year average of 21 million fish, but the number of sockeyes counted by sonar equipment in the Copper River at Miles Lake are far lower than anticipated.  The reason for this is uncertain.

“We’re far enough into the run now that I don’t think water temperature is much of a factor,” said Jeremy Botz, the gillnet area management biologist stationed in Cordova. “It’s probably an issue of freshwater survival and ocean survival. It could be a food issue.”

Meanwhile ,the average sockeye salmon caught in the four 12-hour runs through Tuesday, June 9, was weighing in at about 5.15 pounds, kings at 12.9 pounds and chums on the west side at 8.4 pounds, Botz said.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has dealt a sharp blow to annual demand from high-end restaurants for fresh Copper River kings and red salmon, because the majority of those establishments have been closed for the safety of customers and employees alike.

Retail market enthusiasm has been strong as the fishery heads into its second month, with harvests in only four of eight potential 12-hour openers, the last one being on June 1.

The latest in-season report of estimated harvests shows the drift gillnet fleet had delivered a total of 71,370 sockeyes and 5,751 Chinooks.

Demand for Copper River fish in retail markets has been strong. The online seafood purveyor FishEx in Anchorage is still commanding $78.95 a pound for Copper River king fillets and $44.95 a pound for Copper River sockeyes.  The famed Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle is sold out of fillets of and whole king salmon, but were offering whole Copper River sockeyes for $99.99 apiece and Copper River sockeye fillets for $39.99 a pound.

10th & M Seafoods in Anchorage had headed and gutted kings for $19.95 a pound and headed and gutted sockeyes for $15.95 a pound, plus Copper River king fillets for $24.95 a pound and Copper River sockeye fillets for $22.95 a pound, and a t Costco stores in Anchorage those Copper River sockeye fillets were $16.99 a pound.

Drift gillnetters in the Eshamy and Main Bay district in the Eshamy – Main Bay area have delivered have caught 44 Chinook and 2,811 sockeyes, while in the Coghill district harvesters have delivered 58 kings and 557 sockeyes. 

Purse seine fisheries in Prince William Sound southwest and for Montague were also open, having delivered a total of 9 kings and 180 sockeyes through Tuesday, June 9.