Changed Copper River grounds mean more dangerous fishing

That annual harbinger of spring, the first and highly anticipated Copper River salmon opening, kicks off May 17 with a 12-hour opening, with a below-average forecast of sockeye salmon but some good news regarding Chinooks and bad news for fishermen safety.

The total Copper River sockeye forecast is estimated at 1.73 million fish, compared to the 10-year average of 2.07 million fish, allowing for a commercial harvest of around 942,000 fish, while the Chinook run is expected to be 43,000 just below the 45,000 10-year average.

Allowing for escapement, that would mean a Chinook harvest of around 19,000 fish by all user groups.

The prediction for last year was a dismal harvest of 4,000 Chinooks, but that turned out to be a gross underestimate when the actual harvest came in at over 10,000 fish.

However, the area open for Chinook harvests has been reduced, with an expanded closure area that moves available grounds further out of the protected waters inside barrier islands and onto dangerous grounds with a shallow bottom that features large waves breaking onshore.

In a fishery where many boat owners push the envelope to harvest fish that last season had an ex-vessel value of $9.50 per pound, and where many also operate boats alone, that could make for a dangerous situation.

It comes at a time when the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has released a study showing that the commercial fishing industry has a fatality rate 23 times that of the national average, with Alaska ranking third in the nation for such deaths, and salmon gillnetting topping the Alaska list.

According to the report, from 2000 to 2016, 204 commercial fishermen deaths nation-wide, 27 percent of the fatalities, died from falls overboard.

None were wearing flotation devices.

Other surprising statistics: Sixty percent of those falls were not witnessed, and 90 percent of the victims were not found. Among 83 witnessed falls, 22 victims were recovered but could not be resuscitated. Sixty percent of those who died were deckhands, and the majority were not new to the occupation, averaging 43 years of age and 16 years’ experience.

Only 4 percent of the fatalities had taken any formal safety training, something readily available in Alaska and free to commercial fishermen.

The most common factors were working alone (49 percent), alcohol and drug use (18 percent) and bad weather (12 percent).

For more information on safety training, contact Alaska Marine Safety Education Association at

Cristy Fry can be reached at