ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Commercial fishermen on the Copper River could double their catch of red salmon this summer, but the catch likely will be about average, a state fishery management biologist said.
With another month and a half of fishing ahead for the commercial gillnet fleet, Cordova fishery biologist Dan Sharp expects the red salmon catch to come in between 1 million and 2 million fish, ''right where we've been for a number of years.''
Going into Monday's 24-hour fishing period, the fleet had caught about 800,000 reds and 34,000 kings, compared with forecast total season harvests of 640,000 reds and 48,600 kings.
Last year, fishermen caught about 880,000 reds and 31,000 kings. The 10-year season averages are 1.5 million reds and nearly 48,000 kings.
Copper River fishermen didn't have much to be optimistic about going into the season. The projected harvest was the smallest since 1988's take of 577,000 reds.
State biologists have been pleased about the high number of salmon eluding the commercial nets and moving up the 300-mile Copper River and its tributaries to spawn.
When enough fish have escaped upstream, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game can declare supplemental dipnetting periods. That's happened twice so far this year, with the latest beginning Monday and lasting until midnight Sunday. Chitina dipnetters who have already gotten their limit of up to 30 reds can get a supplemental permit for 10 additional fish.
While the harvest so far has exceeded expectations, the fishermen have had to battle processors over prices. At one point, boats abandoned the fishing grounds after they said some fish packers reneged on minimum price contracts.
Bill Lindow was fishing the choppy, windy waters of the Copper River flats aboard his 31-foot boat Jitterbug on Monday. He expects to get a $1.00 a pound for his Copper River reds.
Lindow said he couldn't recall receiving less than $1.10 or $1.20 a pound for his reds last year. Normally, the Copper River fish, coveted as the first Alaska wild salmon run of the year, pay as much as $2.50 a pound for reds and $5 for the less numerous kings. Then the prices erode going into July as the market fills with fish from other parts of Alaska.
''You'd have to do some figuring to know for sure,'' Lindow said Monday, but he thinks this year's prices could mean less money overall for fishermen despite the bigger catch.
Processors have said a strong, early surge of Copper River salmon flooded U.S. fresh markets, weakening prices. Meanwhile, demand in Japan for frozen reds has been weak.
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