The Copper River sockeye run is well under the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s (ADF&G) in-river goal. Less than half the expected number of fish have returned, prompting ADF&G to once again close the Copper River District to commercial fishing on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, department sonar counted a mere 63,585 sockeye in the river; the 13th lowest run ever recorded. ADF&G’s in-river goal is 148,048 fish, more than double the number of sockeye counted in the Copper River this year. The Department was prompted to take the “necessary conservation measures” to protect the population, which will hopefully lead to an eventual rebound, said Area Management Biologist Jeremy Botz.

The commercial harvest is currently the fourth lowest in the past 50 years. The district has been open for only three 12-hour fishing periods this season.

Botz said the Department doesn’t know why exactly the run is so low; there are a lot of different factors that impact sockeye returns. Moreover, he added, because the Copper River is such a large watershed, ADF&G does not track fish leaving the river. It is therefore possible that there are fewer fish entering the ocean.

Although the cause is unknown, what is more clear is that there has been a trend, as the past four sockeye runs on the Copper River have all been well below average. “We’re seeing a pattern for sure,” said Botz.

He is not certain what the remainder of the season will hold. For instance, there could be a strong run later in the summer, similar to what occurred in 2018. Botz said he “sure hopes” that the department will be able to open it back up for commercial fishing.

While it is also too early to say how the upper Copper River will be impacted, Botz said he doesn’t expect that subsistence fishing will be affected.

Contact reporter Maisie Thomas at 459-7544.