Alaska’s summer salmon season got off to a slow and drizzly start on Thursday, May 17, at the first opener of the Copper River. Low catches by more than 500 gillnetters pushed prices to unprecedented levels.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s "blue sheet" of daily catches showed totals of just 3,000 king salmon and 2,000 sockeyes taken during the 12-hour opener.

Bill Webber, a 51-year veteran of the famous fishery and NF Highliner, ended up with 10 king salmon and six sockeyes by closing time.

“It’s not a great start to the season,” Webber said aboard his bowpicker F/V Paradigm Shift while waiting for a slack tide to turn.

If the fish tickets match the reports from the grounds, Thursday’s opener could be one of the slowest starts to the Copper River season since record keeping began 40 years ago, said Jeremy Botz, regional manager for ADF&G in Cordova. On top of the slow returns, the fish were small. Webber reported that kings were averaging less than 20 pounds and sockeyes less than 4 pounds, compared with historic averages between 25 and 35 pounds for kings.

Copper River king salmon on sale at Pike Place in Seattle for $74.99 a pound. Zed Blue photo.

The slim early catches had customers scrambling to source enough Copper River salmon for their “first fish of the season” celebrations many promised within 24 hours of the salmon being caught. That pressure pushed prices to record levels.

“The price wars are definitely going on due to the low production,” Webber said, adding that early price reports were $8.50 per pound for sockeyes and $13 a pound for king salmon. That compares to $8 and $11, respectively, during the first opener last year.

The salmon prices ticked upward all day, skyrocketing to $10.65 per pound for sockeyes and $15.65 for kings shortly after the 7 p.m. closure, “with a $0.65 dock bonus everywhere,” said a spokesperson for Alaska Wild Seafoods.

“This opener is taking the cake on fish prices so far,” Webber added.

Alaska Airlines made its first delivery of 16,000 pounds salmon to Seattle by early Friday morning. The airline celebrated its 9th annual Copper Chef Cook Off on the SeaTac tarmac, where chefs compete to prepare the best salmon recipe — in this case a 31-pound king salmon donated by Trident Seafoods. The recipes used can be found online.

With the high prices at the end of opening day, that single “first fish” had a value of more than $485 at the Cordova docks.

The Copper River salmon prices will drop off sharply after the early season hoopla fades, but the region’s famous fish will maintain some of the highest prices into the fall. The forecast calls for a Copper River harvest of about 950,000 sockeyes and 19,000 kings for the 2018 season.

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