As Copper River salmon season opens, Alaska gears up for big runs in 2022
The salmon-fishing season in the U.S. state of Alaska officially began Monday, 16 May, with the opening of the Copper River fishery.
The first 17,200 pounds of Copper River salmon arrived in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. on an Alaska Airlines flight at around 8:30 a.m. local time on Tuesday, 17 May, according to Lusamerica Director of Communications and Sustainability Peter Adame. Lusamerica is the parent company of the Monterey Bay Seafood brand.
“It sounds like it was slower fishing this year for the Copper River salmon fishermen in Alaska with the majority of the catch being kings (chinook salmon) over sockeye salmon,” he said in an email to SeafoodSource. “We’re excited to have cargo space in this ‘first fish’ flight. Our plant is less than a half-hour from the airport and we’ll deliver some of this first salmon to our customers in the Seattle region including stores like Safeway, Gemini Fish Market, Pacific Northwest Best, and additional businesses like the Woodmark Hotel, Metropolitan Grill, and The Mill.”
Demand is high for Copper River salmon, and prices have risen accordingly, with a whole king salmon selling for USD 900 (EUR 853) and fillets at USD 130 (EUR 123) per pound, and a whole sockeye going for USD 200 (EUR 190) and fillets at USD 75 (EUR 71) per pound at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, The Cordova Times reported.
Pike Place Market Spokesperson Ryan Reese said orders have been solid even with prices at high levels.
“Our customers are more concerned about the quality of the fish than the price,” he said. “Kings are a very limited supply every year. The serious connoisseurs are filing up their freezers.”
Anchorage, Alaska, U.S.A.-based Copper River Seafoods is selling eight-ounce portions of Copper River king salmon at USD 89 (EUR 84) per pound and eight-ounce portions of Copper River sockeye for USD 50 (EUR 47) per pound, with free shipping for orders above USD 350 (EUR 332).
In April, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) forecasted a statewide projected salmon harvest of 160.5 million fish, down from 235 million salmon caught in 2021. The ADFG prediction calls for a sockeye catch of around 74 million in 2022, up from 57 million caught in 2021.
Pink salmon returns have been weaker in even-numbered years and the ADFG projection for 2022 was 67.2 million, down from the 161 million caught in 2021. That total was split between Prince William Sound (66.4 million), Southeast (48.5 million), Kodiak (26.2 million), and the Alaska Peninsula (16.5 million) in 2021.
ADFG predicted 15.4 million chum salmon and 3.5 million coho salmon will be caught in 2022. The state’s king salmon catch will again be lower this year, with just 310,000 fish expected to be caught.
Bristol Bay’s string of robust salmon runs is expected to continue in 2022, as ADFG expects around 80 percent of the statewide sockeye harvest – a predicted 60 million fish – to be caught there.
"We are definitely gearing up for salmon," Leilani Luhrs, who fishes in Bristol Bay’s Nushagak River, told National Fisherman. "We're getting ready for the run of the year."
Bristol Bay produced 42 million fish for 73 percent of the statewide sockeye harvest. Last year's harvest was the third largest on record and the third time in the last four years that it topped the 40-million mark. Despite heavy winds and high seas throughout much of the season, the Nushagak River accounted for a catch of 18.3 million sockeye salmon in 2021.
"Last year was excellent for poundage, but it was definitely a stormy season,” Luhrs said.
ADFG Fisheries Biologist Tim Sands said Nushagak District salmon fishers have benefitted a string of warm Alaskan winters, which resulted in an increased survival rate of young salmon in Alaska’s lakes, translating to a greater ratio of returning sockeyes per spawner, which has driven harvests higher.
"My gut feeling was that the warm winters of 2013 and 2014 had an effect on some of the higher elevation lakes where they spawn," Sands said. "They froze up later, and the ice went out earlier, and that bumped them more into the Goldilocks zone for salmon production."
In 2021, about 600 fishing boats worked in the Nushagak district beginning in late June. Respective catches of 500,000 on 28 June, 2021, and 200,000 fish on 29 June were followed up with a record harvest on 30 June of 1.7 million sockeyes, and the fleet caught another 1.8 million fish on 1 July.
"We still had a year's worth of fish come in after 8 July, and the fleet had dropped by half,” Sands said.
However, the harshness of this past winter on Alaska’s upland lakes and the warm summer of 2019 could portend a less-successful season for Nushagak district fishers this season, Sands said.
"I'm very curious what the hot summer of 2019 did," Sands said. "We will be seeing the jacks from that summer return this year. The effects of the winter of 2021 won't be seen until 2024 and later. My gut feeling is that the Nushagak will return to more normal after this year."
Besides the 44.5 million pinks, seiners in Southeast Alaska harvested 794,000 sockeyes and 2.6 million chums. Southeast gillnetters landed 209,000 sockeyes and 1.5 million chums. Power trollers landed 158,000 chinooks, 811,000 coho, and 700,000 chums. For 2022, harvest limits of chinooks for all gear types in Southeast has been set at 213,000, with another an additional 28,000 fish as "add-on" fish attributed to local hatchery production.
Combined catches for Upper and Lower Cook Inlet tallied up to about 1.7 million in 2021, with ADFG forecasting a catch of 2 million fish for this year.
As the 2022 season progresses and more king and sockeye salmon escape upriver to spawn, ADFG biologists will adjust commercial openings guided by the state’s regulatory management framework based on the sustained yield principle, which mandated in the Alaska state constitution.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game Gillnet Management Area Biologist Jeremy Botz said his department and the state’s fishers are ready for the season to begin.
“The excitement … regarding the start of the fishery is palpable right now, always a wonderful time to be on the ground preparing for another season. A tried and true management approach will be used again this year – conservative management measures are planned early in the season based on the below-average forecasts, and, as the season progresses, management will be adapted quickly based on in season indices of run strength to balance fishing opportunity and escapement needs,” Botz said in a press release. “The commercial fishery will be an important means of evaluating the strength of the king and sockeye salmon runs.”
Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines