Kotzebue Fishery Closes Early with ‘3rd Best Harvest in Over 25 Years’

The commercial fishing season in Kotzebue came to a close Friday, and while both the chum salmon run and the payout to fishermen pales in comparison to the gargantuan success of last year, the fishermen at Alaska’s northernmost salmon fishery still have plenty of reason to smile.

Commercial fishermen delivering chum salmon in Kotzebue. Photo: Hilary Upicksoun.
Commercial fishermen delivering chum salmon in Kotzebue. Photo: Hilary Upicksoun.

“Right now we’re a little over 300,000 harvested, and this was the third best harvest in over 25 years in the Kotzebue fishery,” said Alaska Department of the Fish and Game biologist Jim Menard, fresh from a visit to Kotzebue this week. He was checking in on the small commercial fishery just 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle, saying the payout to fishermen this year would surpass $800,000 by the close of Friday.

Menard said it’s a huge but expected drop-off compared to last year’s harvest of more than 600,000 fish that brought in a nearly $2.9 million combined payout.

“Last year was a once in a generation thing, it was either the greatest all-time run or the second greatest all-time run,” Menard recalled. “It just kept coming and coming. The strength of that run was amazing.”

But last year wasn’t memorable simply due to the fish. “You had three buyers [in Kotzebue], buying as much as they could. It was just an incredible season.”

By comparison, this season Kotzebue has had just one buyer, Copper River Seafoods, and on Friday, Aug. 21, the seafood company’s buyers on the ground announced Friday would be the last day they’re buying fish, ten days before the official closure of Aug. 31.

A single buyer has meant less capacity to buy fish, even though more permits were fished this year than last. The buying bottleneck got to the point where Copper River put fishermen on 1,500-pound limits, and even refused to buy for several days at a time. (Those limits, enforced per permit, also contributed to the high number of permits fished, as idle permits were dusted off for a chance to delivery an additional 1,500 pounds to market.)

In the end, only 29 days were actually fished between the start of the season on July 12 and Friday.

Still, Menard said this year’s run ranks within the top ten for the Kotzebue fishery’s 54-year history. The $800,000 payout is strong, too, even in the face of falling salmon prices.

“Definitely throughout the state it was a big drop in price all over for the value of salmon. The price started out this year at 37 cents per pound and later dropped to 27 cents a pound.”

Despite Copper River Seafoods closing up shop Friday, there may be one final pulse of sales for Kotzebue fishermen: regional nonprofit Maniilaq may buy some salmon before the season formally comes to a close on the last day of August.