Biologists predict worst Copper River sockeye run in 10 years

Posted: Thursday, May 24, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Dipnetters at Chitina may find it harder to fill their freezers with red salmon from the Copper River this year.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is forecasting the lowest Copper River sockeye salmon run in more than 10 years.

State commercial fisheries biologist Dan Sharp of Cordova said the projected commercial harvest this year is 640,000 red salmon, which would be the lowest commercial take since 1988. Last year, commercial fishermen caught 880,000 reds.

Biologists are forecasting an overall run of 1.4 million red salmon in the Copper River, the lowest since 1.15 million fish returned in 1988. If the forecast is true, it would mark the second year in a row the Copper River sockeye run has dropped. Last year's total run was estimated at 1.6 million.

''I wouldn't characterize it as a catastrophe by any means,'' Sharp said. ''It's still a healthy, robust run but it's not going to fill the coffers for some people like it has in recent years.

''Salmon runs are a series of peaks and valleys and we're coming off some peak years,'' the biologist said.

Indeed, the Copper River experienced red salmon runs of 2-4 million fish from 1993-99 with a record run of 4.2 million in 1997. The average run for the last five years is 2.8 million.

While commercial fishermen got their first whack at Copper River salmon with a 12-hour opening on May 17, Chitina dipnetters won't get a chance to start scooping until June 9, when the fishery is scheduled to open for 36 hours.

Fish and Game installed sonar at Miles Lake last week to begin counting fish. Those sonar counts are used to manage the subsistence dipnet fisheries in both the Chitina and Glennallen subdistricts. If actual counts are below what is projected, fishing time will be reduced to ensure enough fish make it upriver to spawn. The sonar escapement goal this year at Miles Lake is 723,000 fish.

Based on the forecast, the first four or five openings will likely be long weekends, said state sport fish biologist Tom Taube at Fish and Game in Glennallen. That means fishing time in June will likely be limited.

''Unless there's a lot more fish than they anticipate we're not going to get to fish much in June,'' said Stan Bloom of the Chitina Dipnetters' Association.

Last year, both the number of dipnetters and the number of fish caught were down. Fish and Game issued 8,151 permits in the Chitina subdistrict and dipnetters caught an estimated 113,000 fish. The two years prior to that, the average number of dipnetters was 10,000 and the harvest was nearly 150,000.

Because it takes salmon a week to 10 days to reach the sonar counter at Miles Lake, Fish and Game uses the first few commercial openings to gauge the early strength of the Copper River salmon run and make management decisions. Bloom has lobbied for a later commercial opening to ensure that more fish make it into the river because there are years when the salmon pool near the mouth of the river waiting to enter, making them easy prey for commercial nets.

Due to low sonar counts early in the season last year, the commercial fishery was closed for 19 straight days while biologists anxiously waited for the sonar numbers to rise, which they finally did in June. Bloom contends a later opening would have meant more fishing time for everyone.

''If they hadn't had those early openings, fish would have gone past the sonar and they wouldn't have had to close the commercial fishery,'' Bloom said.

This year also marks the first time there has been a federal fishery on the Copper River.

As part of the federal takeover of the state's subsistence fisheries two years ago, the Federal Subsistence Board last year ruled the Copper River dipnet fishery was customary and traditional and established a May 15-Sept. 30 subsistence fishery in the Glennallen subdistrict above the McCarthy Road Bridge. The season opened for federally qualified subsistence users from the Copper River Basin and Prince William Sound on Tuesday in the Glennallen subdistrict. The state subsistence season in the Glennallen subdistrict doesn't open until June 1.

Federal or state permit holders in the Glennallen subdistrict can use a dipnet or fish wheel and catch up to 500 fish for a household of two or more. While the state issued 150 more permits (1,253) for the Glennallen subdistrict last year, total harvest above the bridge dropped from 82,000 to 66,000.

However, fishermen above the bridge caught almost 5,000 kings last year, an increase of about 2,000 over previous years. That made up for the reduced number of kings caught by dipnetters as a result of a new regulation that dropped the bag limit for Chitina dipnetters from four to one. Last year Chitina dipnetters caught 3,100 kings in comparison to 6,000 the previous two years.

The forecast for this year's Copper River king salmon run, meanwhile, are a bit rosier than the red forecast. The projected commercial harvest of 48,000 for this year's Copper River king salmon run is up from last year's harvest of 31,000. That translates to an overall run of approximately 80,000 kings, which is higher than last year's estimated run of 67,000 chinook.

Whether or not sport fishermen on the Klutina and Gulkana rivers have success hooking those kings, though, depends on several things. The more conservative the commercial fishery is, the more kings make it to the Gulkana and Klutina, Taube said.

''If the fishery is conservative you get a fair number of kings in the river and then it depends on the water conditions,'' Taube said.

Last year, for example, Fish and Game met its escapement goals for both the Gulkana and Klutina rivers but neither river experienced what would be considered a real good fishing year because of poor fishing conditions. High water made the Klutina River unfishable for three weeks of the four- to five-week season and the season bag limit on the Gulkana was reduced from four to two fish because biologists were concerned about weak runs. --------

(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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