Dipnetters ask fish board to delay Copper River fishing

Posted: Tuesday, November 21, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Copper River commercial salmon fishery could be delayed two weeks or more to allow more early-season fish to reach dipnetters. The state Board of Fisheries will consider the proposed delay at its January meeting.

Commercial fishermen and packers say that could knock Alaska's salmon superstar right off center stage. The broad mouth of the Copper River traditionally produces the first big slug of fresh Alaska salmon in the spring. The arrival of those fish has been heavily promoted and the salmon are eagerly awaited in upscale Lower 48 restaurants and markets.

Stan Bloom made the proposal as vice president of the Fairbanks-based Chitina Dipnetters Association. He says the commercial success shouldn't come at the expense of thousands of Alaskans hoping to pull a few fish out of the silty Copper River further upstream.

For the past two summers, he said, dipnetters have been all but shut out in June because the commercial fleet in the delta have grabbed most of the fish, starting the harvest May 15. Natives who use subsistence fishwheels even farther upstream are suffering too, he said.

In January, the Alaska Board of Fisheries will consider Bloom's proposal that 100,000 fish must pass the Miles Lake sonar fish counter before any commercial fishing is allowed in May. That sonar station is 48 miles upriver.

If approved, commercial fishermen probably couldn't begin working until June, zapping the early-season advantage that has propelled Copper River fish to fame.

''We are taking this proposal very, very seriously, one that could be the death knell for our fishery,'' said Sue Aspelund, executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United.

Last summer, Copper River fishermen caught about 1.4 million red salmon and 30,000 king salmon worth nearly $11 million at the dock.

Dipnetters aren't looking for a higher allocation of salmon, Bloom said. They just want to make sure some early fish get into the pipeline before the commercial fleet goes to work.

Early fishing also might be hurting small, distinct stocks returning to spawn far upriver, Bloom maintains.

Doug Mecum, commercial fisheries director for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, disputes that claim and says the department will oppose Bloom's proposal.

He said that while researchers could always use better data, biologists don't believe the commercial fishery is, in Bloom's words, ''wiping out'' early spawners.

The Copper River is the state's ''flagship model'' for how to manage a fishery, producing record runs in recent years and sustaining both a robust commercial fishery and plenty of fish for dipnetters and subsistence users, Mecum said.

Dan Coffey, chairman of the Board of Fisheries, said four of the seven board members felt enough conservation concerns were raised to put Bloom's proposal on the agenda for the Jan. 9 meeting in Anchorage. The board had not been scheduled to consider regulatory changes for the Copper River until 2002.

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