Commercial harvesters of the famed Copper River salmon were back in business on Wednesday, June 9, after state biologists tracking the sonar count saw a significant boost in the number of sockeye salmon heading upstream.
“We are back to getting into the goal range,” said Jeremy Botz, finfish area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Cordova. “I think we are seeing a late compressed run. I still feel it is a relatively small run, but higher than in 2018 and 2020.”
The ADF&G announcement said that during the opener, waters of the Copper River district, excluding the expanded Chinook salmon inside closure area, would be open to subsistence fishing. During the commercial fishing season, subsistence harvest may occur in the Copper River District concurrent in time and area with commercial fishing periods, as well as from 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturdays from May 15 to Oct. 31.
While eager to be fishing again, veteran Cordova harvesters felt they should have been allowed out on the grounds earlier to get a better handle on what the run, albeit late and maybe compressed, was really stacking up to be.
The collective Copper River harvest from three periods of fishing stood at an estimated 60,127 fish from 1,192 deliveries, including 5,259 kings, 52,752 reds and 2,116 chum salmon. Fish are also starting to come in from the Coghill, Eschamy and Prince William Sound general seine fishery and a number of other commercial salmon fisheries will open soon statewide.
Jerry McCune, president of Cordova District Fishermen United, spoke from his boat on the fishing grounds hours before the opener. ADF&G “were being very cautious because the numbers were flat,” he said. “I think they were being a little too cautious, I think there should have been [an opener] a couple of days earlier just to see what was out there.”
More real-time reporting is needed too on subsistence and personal use harvests, so we know what is being caught, he said.
Another veteran harvester from Cordova, John Renner, said the fleet should have been used earlier to collect data, to see if the run was weak or strong, rather than just waiting for the sonar count.
“We’ve been sitting on the beach for 16 days,” he said from the deck of his boat on the evening of Tuesday, June 8. “40,000-plus salmon went past the counter today and if it continues, there is a huge allocation loss, a severe lost economic opportunity.
“I’m extremely happy to go fishing,” he said. “It is long overdue. Right now we have a situation similar to 2013. Nobody knows how many fish have gone up the river.
“They have let a significant amount escape upriver. They [ADF&G] should have given us a shot during the closure to find out what the run is doing. All these fish in the river were record high prices. We’ve been saying this is not last year’s fishery.”
Renner’s estimate is this is a moderate run, maybe 1.2 million-1.6 million fish, which would be double that of last year. “They need to use the fishermen to learn what the run is doing,” he said. We should use the commercial fleet as an indicator of abundance. How do they know what’s going on without us?”
There are 38 systems in the Copper, a very large and complicated system, he said. “The runs we had [fished] were early and they didn’t show much. It’s very tough for the commercial fleet to just sit on the beach. People are upset. It’s not the biologists’ fault, except for not using us to test for abundance.”
Cordova’s fleet is the source of a lot of Alaska salmon, he said. “People depend on us for their fish,” he said. “If it were a weak run, we would gladly sit on the beach. It’s very scary for a commercial fisherman on the Copper, unless the runs come back. Thank God the [sonar] counter is working now.”