Early numbers on returning sockeye salmon to the Copper River are not encouraging. Less than 64,000 sockeyes have gone past the Department of Fish & Game’s sonar tower. That is less than half the goal of 148,000 returning spawners, putting 2021 at 13th on the worst year list.
News of the returning numbers come as the personal use, dip net fishery will see its first open window on Thursday June 10. For 96 hours, permitted Alaskans can take home 25 salmon for the head of household, and an additional 10 for each dependent. Only one of these can be a king salmon. This first window will be 72 hours shorter than expected due to the low return.
Salmon prices are sky high right now, with kings going for $19.60 a pound, and sockeyes a respectable $12.60. In 2020 the salmon netted $6.00 and $4.00 respectively.
Commercial fisherman have seen three 12 hour fishing periods in May.
Salmon fishing the Copper River near Chitina, Alaska
Alaska’s famed Copper River is seeing a brutal return number of salmon so far this summer. The return is so low, that an emergency order closing the Chitina area to dipnetting was issued last week. Since statehood, Alaska has never closed the river to dipnetters.
This is a blow to Alaskans and their freezers.
During an average summer, 7000 Alaskans head to Chitina to dipnet the Copper River. 170,000 salmon are caught this way every year.
Dipnetting is an Alaskan tradition, since only residents can get a license to dipnet. It’s how many fill their freezers with salmon for the year, and Interior Alaskans in particular, love making the drive to Chitina for this special personal use fishery.
This really is historic, and it has a lot of people on edge. Biologists have pointed blame at “The Blob”, which was a large mass of unusually warm water that took up residence in the Gulf of Alaska from 2014 to 2016.
Commercial fisheries are also feeling the heat, as they saw the second lowest take in 50 years. The commercial fishery was shut down in May by the Alaska Fish & Game.
There is nothing easy about dipnetting The Copper. The river roars past the steep banks, forcing dipnetters to tie themselves off to rocks or trees to keep from being dragged into the deadly cold water. It’s a helluva workout, holding that huge net out into the flowing water, and if a king hits that net, hold on! It’s quite the experience, and you will sleep well at the end of a long day in the river.
The Chitina River, near Chitina, Alaska. Camera: Kodak 66; Film: Kodak T-Max 120
Not to be outdone, the Ship Creek King Salmon Derby in Anchorage saw their worst year yet. The contest on Ship Creek has been held since 1993, and they had the smallest king ever win the derby at less than 29 pounds. Only 98 kings were entered into the derby total, when in past years they saw that number entered in a day. The winning angler still walked away with $4000 worth of gold & silver.
Needless to say, the price of salmon will be going up.