ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - The Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued an emergency order Wednesday closing the personal-use and sport fishing for Copper River sockeye around Chitina until further notice.
The closure goes into effect on Monday, June 18th. Commercial fishing stopped on May 28th, and next week the department will determine how the low numbers will affect subsistence fishing.
Area management biologist, Mark Somerville calls the move "unprecedented."
"It's the second lowest on record basically in the last 50 years, pretty much since statehood," Somerville said. "And there's lots of different reason for it."
Somerville says a mass of warm temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska and need for more food by the fish are to blame. "That's the 'blob' thing," Somerville said.
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.
Alaska is famous for its Copper River salmon exports. A mega-PR blitz signals the start of the season, including Alaska Airlines flying the first fish to Seattle, where eager chefs await it with outstretched arms.
The fish glistens with hard-earned fat, after swimming and eating across thousands of miles, from birth in the snow-fed waters of Alaskan rivers to the chilly sea.
This year, biologists say there just aren't enough fish swimming past the sonar to keep the fishery open.
"It's just one of those years where we're all going to have to look for alternatives," Somerville said, "either for our recreation or for our fish source for food for the winter."
Somerville says last year's harvest in the personal use fishery was around 130,000 salmon, the subsistence fishery was about 58,000, sport fishing was around 4,000 fish, commercial fishing was around 600,000.
Fish and Game also says it's keeping a close eye on other parts of the state where salmon numbers are also low.
"Southeast, the Chinook salmon are somewhat in a crisis mode down there with the lowest forecast we've ever had, and those numbers seem to be proving out.," said Bert Lewis, a commercial fisheries biologist with Fish and Game. "So Chinook across the state, we are concerned about."
Lewis said Copper River sockeye have always been a bright spot on Alaska's fishing scene, but the latest numbers are concerning and will impact other parts of the state as fishers head to other places to ensure their freezers are full this winter.
"This is a bit of surprise and makes everyone stand up and take notice, and the ripple effect on the commercial fisher, because of its marketing power, and the personal use fishery, and the amount of participation that you see from Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley and Fairbanks," Lewis said. "It's a big deal, and affects many people."