CORDOVA (AP) -- Commercial fishermen at the mouth of the Copper River are having a tough go of it this year.
The return of reds was thin and sporadic. Prices didn't rise given the short supply. And environmentalists are calling for a ''wilderness'' designation for the Copper River Delta.
Farther upstream, federally-qualified subsistence users have demanded half the Copper River's return and now, state-qualified subsistence dipnetters are demanding that Copper River commercial fishermen keep their nets out of the water until 100,000 fish have made it past the sonar counter at Miles Lake.
''To get 100,000 fish past the counter will mean getting 200,000 or 300,000 fish past the nets,'' said Sue Aspelund, executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United. ''If we lose that early part of the run, we will also lose a huge portion of the ex-vessel value here in Cordova. That early run is our only advantage.''
For 20 years, Copper River fishermen have positioned themselves to take advantage of the first substantial return of reds and kings to Alaska, Aspelund said. The marketing strategy has worked and Copper River salmon are widely anticipated each year by restaurants and gourmands hungry for fresh, wild salmon.
The proposal was submitted by Stan Bloom, vice president of the Fairbanks-based Chitina Dipnetters Association. Bloom has said that the Copper River commercial fishery's marketing success shouldn't come at the expense of thousands of upstream Alaskans.
George Coval, chair of the Cordova Fish and Game Advisory Committee, thinks Bloom is understating the situation.
''There are a lot of people fishing up there. Last year they issued about 10,000 permits and there are probably at least two people fishing for each permit,'' Coval said. ''They have the potential to harvest 150,000 fish up there.''
No harvest figures are available yet for this year, but according to Aspelund, dippers took 155,000 fish in 1999. The numbers may be lower this year because not as many fish came back.
In his proposal, Bloom cited conservation concerns about the early run.
''This was a bad year but that wasn't news to anybody,'' Covel said. ''We all knew that 1995 (the parent year for this year's fish) was a bad year for fish.''
This past fishing season, commercial fishermen working out of Cordova were shut down for 17 days in June. All tolled, Cordova commercial fishermen harvested about 1.4 million salmon with an ex-vessel value of roughly $11 million.
Bloom did not recommend any conservation measures for dipnetters in his proposal.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game doesn't think conservation is a problem on the Copper River.
''The proposal itself is something we don't agree with,'' said Doug Mecum, director of commercial fisheries for the department. ''Our current program protects upriver stocks by putting fish upstream and it allows us to have healthy commercial and sport fisheries and healthy reproductive stocks.''
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