Copper River's "first fish" expected Friday

May 17, 2017

Delayed start to hyped salmon fishery due to projected low king run this year. ADF&G will open the fleet Thursday, and Alaska's most famed commercial salmon should arrive in Anchorage and Seattle Friday.

Alaska most hyped salmon fishery is starting a little later than usual: the Chinook and sockeye runs to Copper River are forecast very low this season, and the state will fish it a little conservatively early on. Chefs in Anchorage and Seattle hope to celebrate the season with the first fish Friday afternoon.

The Copper River fleet usually would have had their first opportunity Monday, but ADF&G swapped that for a subsistence opener instead. Now the fleet will wet their nets Thursday.

"We dropped a single period this first week due to concerns of a very low Chinook forecast," said area research biologist Stormy Haught. "We’re looking at a point estimate of about 29,000 [kings] this year. You know we generally catch about 12-13,000 Chinook, we have an in-river goal of 24,000, so pretty quickly you realize that math doesn’t work out."

The Chinook forecast is the lowest in twenty years, according to ADF&G. The natural production sockeye run forecast is 1.5 million, which is the 17th smallest out of the past 20 years. The fleet will likely have a bit of a slow start, but Haught says there should be plenty of fishing time throughout the season.

“We’ll have these Chinook conservation measures in  through June, but once we get out of the traditional Chinook timing we’ll be able to be a little more aggressive toward sockeye," he said. "I think the standard two periods a week, and just adjust time and area to try and conserve some kings and meet our in-river goal, which we’ve missed a few years.”

Because it is usually the first fresh Alaska wild salmon caught each summer, Copper River kings and reds get the red carpet treatment, literally. An Alaska Airlines pilot will carry some fresh fish by hand across the tarmac to chefs in Anchorage and Seattle Friday afternoon, with plenty of press on hand to pump up the enthusiasm. The early season catch from Copper River fetches a premium price for the fishermen, too.

After the king and sockeye fisheries, the "duallys" who fish pinks in Prince William Sound should have their hands full.

"Last year was a crummy year for seiners in Prince William Sound for pinks, just like it was everywhere else," said Haught. "But here we’re on this increasing odd year strength, and so evens [years] are generally pretty low and odd years are really good. We’re anticipating another record pink run here in Prince William Sound this year, so hopefully that helps those guys out.”

The state forecast estimates a pink run upwards of 21,000,000 fish.

Alaska's summer salmon season gets underway Thursday with a 12-hour opener in Copper River. Fish from that first catch is expected to be sold at some high-end markets and restaurants by Friday night.