Low sockeye returns prompt commercial fishing closure on the Copper River

The sun sets over the harbor near downtown Cordova on Sunday, September 8, 2019. (Photo by Nat Herz / Alaska Public Media)

The commercial salmon season on the Copper River started last Thursday, but it’s already on hold. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced earlier this week that an opening planned for today would not happen as scheduled. 

“There’s just no fish out there in great numbers,” said Bill Webber, owner of the Cordova business Paradigm Seafoods. Webber is one fisherman facing a really slow start to the season. 

“We’ve been down this road a lot in this community and it gets quite scary as to how we as a community will survive,” said Webber. “So it’s kind of important that the fish show up for work so we can all go to work.”

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There have been two fishing openings so far. During the first, Webber says, he caught just five sockeye. In the second, he netted five more sockeye and seven kings. 

Webber is not alone. 

“We’re way, well below what we expect to be at this point,” said Jeremy Botz, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He says so far the entire commercial fleet has harvested around 6,000 sockeye, which is way below what the department anticipated. 

Fish and Game has forecasted the sockeye harvest for the whole season at close to 800,000 fish. 

With only two fishing periods to reference so far, Botz says, it’s hard to know what the rest of the season will look like. 

Webber is hopeful that it’s just a little too early, and the fleet will start seeing more fish soon. 

According to Botz, a late, compressed run is definitely possible, and he expects to see a significant increase in fish soon. 

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How the run performs over the next few weeks will help the department determine what the season will look like going forward. 

Botz says ADF&G is planning to make an announcement Friday about whether the fishery will reopen as scheduled on Monday.