Copper River salmon numbers improve, according to high-tech sonars on the river

CORDOVA, Alaska (KTUU) - Copper River salmon glistens with hard-earned fat after swimming and eating across thousands of miles, from birth in the snow-fed waters of Alaska's rivers to the chilly sea.

Copper River salmon arrives in Anchorage

Alaska is famous for its first major salmon exports of the season. A mega-PR blitz of Copper River salmon signals the start of the season, including Alaska Airlines flying the "first fish" to Seattle, where eager chefs await it with outstretched arms.

The science of fish can be tricky, with millions of dollars on the line. So it's not surprising that when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game stopped some fishing on the Copper River, people were concerned.

"It's been a bit of a challenging run. We've had a lower sockeye run than we've had in many years and so it leads to some more conservative management decisions," Shane Sheperd, the Miles Lake Sonar Crew lead for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said.

[RELATED: Chitina dip net fishery to reopen this weekend after sockeye run recovers]

But how does Fish and Game know how many fish are out there in the glacier-fed waters of the Copper River? It's almost impossible to see through the silt, and the water is incredibly cold. Miles and Childs Glaciers make it impossible to use nets to catch and count salmon because of the ice that's constantly carried across these fast waters.

That's where sonars help.

"On any average shift I probably count somewhere in the range of, I estimate about 7,000 to 8,000 fish," Sheperd said.

Every hour, for 10 minutes, the sonar counters record the number of fish that swim past near the banks of the river. Some of the equipment was paid for by the Copper River Marketing Association, Cordova District Fishermen United, as well as fish processors.

"We have to put faith in them going forward that they have the tools, and we have to work with them to make sure they have the tools, to be able to come up with the science to ensure this fishery in the long term," Brian O'Leary, the plant manager at Ocean Beauty, said.

As of June 10, the Copper River weir showed that 154,866 red salmon had passed the counter since May 18. In the same period last year, 320,484 sockeye had swam up the river.

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