Copper River experiencing second lowest commercial salmon harvest in 50 years

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Anchorage (KTUU) — The Copper River Flats is seeing the second lowest salmon commercial harvest in the past 50 years, resulting in commercial fishermen being kept from catching the prized fish for nearly two weeks.

MGN PHOTO: Salmon underwater

As of June 10, the Copper River weir shows that 154,866 reds have passed the counter since May 18. In the same period last year, 320,484 sockeye had swum up the river.

Art Nelson, a spokesperson for commercial fisheries with the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, attributes the decline in part to warmer ocean temperatures. "One of the theories is that there had been a number of years of unusually warm water in the North Pacific that was referred to as 'the blob,' and that is one of the things that folks believe is leading to the poor productivity, poor feed for the salmon and then poor salmon productivity because of that."

Washington State Climatologist and research scientist at the University of Washington, Nick Bond, coined the term 'blob' in his research on the warming ocean phenomenon in the Pacific Northwest, and he thinks the salmon harvest in the Copper River has been affected by these changing temperatures.

“The ecosystem is a complicated system with a lot of different interacting parts to it, but we’re seeing disruptions of various sorts in the marine food web,” Bond said. “Certainly, a working hypothesis is we’re seeing the working hangover of the blob.”

In his June 2014 Office of the Washington State Climatologist report, Bond wrote, “The Pacific Northwest experienced a period of seasonally quiet and dry weather from October 2013 into February 2014. This period also featured anomalously weak cooling of the upper ocean off our coast for the time of year. The result was what will hereafter be referred to as the “blob”, a large mass of water that was ~3°C warmer than normal in February 2014 and is still prominent.”

Even though the warming water phenomenon was first noted in 2013, Bond said salmon populations that are returning this year probably went out to sea during one of the first years of the blob.

“It’s those fish that went to sea in probably 2015-2016 that are now starting to return as adults that we’re are seeing the effects kind of in the delayed response to what was going on a couple years ago,” Bond said.

With the exception of the Bering Sea, Bond said surface ocean temperatures around Alaska and in the Gulf of Alaska are moving closer to the average temperature.

The marine environment may return to a more normal condition, but Bond said there could be some after effects of the warming that impact what types of organisms continue to habitat the area.

In the meantime, Nelson said low salmon harvests could affect the price of sockeye salmon this summer.

"With low returns coming for most species so far, it’s still early for a lot of the other areas, that should keep the prices high for most species across the state," Nelson said.