Copper River Salmon
Copper River Salmon are some of the finest salmon in the marketplace today. Typically the first salmon commercially harvested in Alaska each year, these robust fish fetch a high price in restaurants across the nation. In some years, in excess of one million Copper River salmon are taken commercially. While the commercial salmon fishing occurs outside of the park near the mouth of the river, many of these fish originated from within the Park/Preserve and are attempting to return to their birth streams or lakes to spawn. In addition to providing for subsistence, sport harvest, and other visitor experiences, these returning salmon play an important role in the natural ecosystem.
Many Alaskan streams and lakes are relatively nutrient-poor. Adult salmon, returning from the sea, bring with them rich ocean nutrients. Algae utilize this boost in nitrogen and phosphorus and in turn provide food for zooplankton and aquatic insects which ultimately feed juvenile salmon that continue the cycle. Commercial fisheries have the potential to overharvest salmon populations and also reduce these important ocean nutrients within the aquatic ecosystem.
In Alaska, salmon fisheries are managed according to the sustainable salmon fisheries policy which states that "salmon fisheries shall be managed to allow salmon escapements necessary to conserve and sustain potential salmon production and maintain normal ecosystem functioning." Park fisheries biologists work closely with fisheries managers in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, other Federal agencies, tribal governments, and private non-profit organizations to ensure that healthy numbers of salmon return to spawn each year. The superintendent of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the federal fisheries manager for the entire Copper River. This means that he has the authority to suspend fishing when necessary to ensure enough salmon survive their long journey upriver to spawn or be harvested by subsistence fishers.
Throughout the summer, biologists keep track of the numbers of returning salmon in several ways. As salmon begin to enter the Copper River from the sea, a sonar counts each fish. Daily sonar readings give an idea of how many fish have made it into the river. Upriver, experimental fishwheels in Baird Canyon, harvest reports from fishermen, and a series of fish weirs in the park at Tanada Creek and Long Lake allow for accurate estimates.
In 2005, the commercial fishery harvested 1,337,000 sockeye salmon in the Copper River District. During this same season, 578,927 salmon passed by the Miles Lake sonar and escaped the commercial fishery. Of these salmon that entered the Copper River, approximately 72,000 were harvested in subsistence fisheries in the Glennallen Subdistrict of the Copper River and approximately 120,000 were harvested in the personal use fishery downstream of the Chitina-McCarthy bridge. An estimated 15,000 salmon were harvested in sport fisheries throughout the Copper River drainage. The remaining 372,000 salmon escaped to begin the next generation.
The Copper River is famous the world over for the health of its salmon runs and the taste of its fish. This is a result of careful monitoring to guarantee salmon numbers large enough to reproduce and replenish the population. Through cooperation we hope to maintain these tremendous fish in perpetuity