Copper River closed for now as salmon returns come creeping in

With abysmal harvest records during the first weeks of the Copper River salmon season, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game made the decision to shutter Thursday’s 12-hour opening.

Actions regarding a 12-hour opening on Monday, June 4, and any future openings will be considered after a reassessment of data over the weekend.

“Commercial fishing will remain closed for the rest of this week,” said lifelong Copper River gillnetter and NF Highliner Bill Webber Jr. on Wednesday, May 30. “A necessity for sustainability. We, the commercial user group on this resource, totally understand that and willfully make the sacrifice for the health of the resource.”

The department released a statement on Wednesday, citing sonar data from Miles Lake as a key factor in the closure.

“Cumulative sonar count through [Tuesday, May 29] is 1,619 fish whereas 3,211 fish are projected by this date,” read the statement. “The [6 a.m. Wednesday count] is 156 fish. Preliminary harvest estimate from the 12-hour period that occurred on Monday, May 21, was 1,440 chinook and 3,870 sockeye salmon. This compares to a projected harvest of 79,400 sockeye salmon for this period.”

Data from the department shows about 6,000 Copper River sockeye were harvested during the first two openings of this year’s fishery — versus 134,000 in 2017 and 83,000 in 2016, during the same time frame.

According to Fish and Game Biologist Jeremy Botz, harvest levels on Monday, May 28, hit 19,000 sockeye, well below the 97,000 sockeye commercial gillnetters usually harvest at this point in the season.

A slow opener has led to unprecedented prices — with Copper River kings fetching $74.99 at Pike Place in Seattle shortly after the first opening.

Fishery managers will have to decide whether or not to close other windows going forward.

About the author

Samuel Hill

Samuel Hill is associate editor for National Fisherman. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine where he got his start in journalism at the campus’ newspaper, the Free Press. He has also written for the Bangor Daily News, the Outline, Motherboard and other publications about technology and culture.

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