Sustainability: More than a Trend
Sustainability is a word used quite frequently when it comes to salmon, seafood, natural products and even financial balance sheets.
Here in the home port of world famous Copper River king, sockeye and coho salmon, sustainability is everything. It’s not only a word, it is a focus and a force that has kept our family fishermen harvesting for decades. It is what keeps our wild salmon returning for generations.
Alaska: Remote and Ahead of Its Time
Alaska may seem distanced from the rest of the country, both geographically and ideologically. However, our state’s founding fathers were ahead of their time when it came to protecting our fisheries.
Crafters of the Alaska State Constitution recognized that for humans to use this precious resource, they needed to protect it by law. That’s why Article 8 of the Alaska Constitution states that “fish…be utilized, developed, and maintained on the sustained yield principle.” Part of this mandate includes ensuring that enough salmon return to their birthplace to reproduce every year.
For Now and The Future
This, however, is no easy task. Alaska’s long-term commitment to maintaining the health of the fisheries for current and future generations is rooted in manpower, scientific knowledge and state of the art technology. All of these tools help fisheries biologists determine when commercial fishermen can harvest and when they need to stop in order to protect the longevity of the salmon run.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) manages fishery resources within state waters. Given the vastness of the state’s coastlines and waterways, ADF&G researchers use several methods to assess salmon populations. These vary based on the region and the inherent characteristics of the waterways at hand. During the season biologists collect and analyze age, sex, weight and length data from salmon to create models that help forecast runs in coming seasons. They monitor harvest trends closely, comparing number of fish caught in each area to historical trends. They also use aerial surveys and other tools to monitor salmon runs. On the Copper, the most critical tool is the Miles Lake sonar.
Counting Around the Clock: The Miles Lake Sonar
The Copper River Drainage system extends about 300 miles from its mountain headwaters to the vast Gulf of Alaska. The ecosystem is rugged and the waters are cold, rapid and steep. Due to the large drainage area and turbid conditions, the Copper River carries the highest silt load of any river in Alaska. All of these conditions make the Miles Lake sonar, two sophisticated devices that use sound waves to locate fish traveling underwater, essential to management of the Copper River salmon fishery.
The sonar is located where the Copper River narrows into a single channel. It is the nearest such location to the fishing grounds at which the sonar can operate well enough to assess the majority of the salmon run. A transducer is located on each bank of the river. And, because the river flow and velocity are so high here, salmon instinctively save themselves some precious energy by swimming near the more protected banks. This enables the sonar to “see” the salmon and gather data in a timely and efficient manner.
With this sonar, biologists count fish ‘round the clock May through July each season, thus ensuring that ADF&G has the best possible escapement information. Sonar counts are relayed daily to fishery managers in Cordova and they use this data to make fishery management decisions in real time.
Throughout the season, biologists compare daily sonar counts to the count needed to achieve the in-river goal. If counts are near expected and other indicators (such as historical harvest data) suggest the salmon run is strong, ADF&G announces a commercial fishery opener within the coming days. If counts are below expected and other indicators are unfavorable, the commercial fishery remains closed until more salmon make it upriver. In this way, the Copper River salmon run is managed sustainably year after year.