Salmon Fisheries


Commercial fishers must “own” one of the 540 limited entry permits for the Copper River. The fishery takes place inside and outside of the barrier islands along the Copper River Delta. A series of markers define the areas inside the barrier islands, and no fishing can occur above the line, where fish may be more vulnerable. The outside fishing boundary is about 3 miles seaward of the barrier islands, in the Gulf of Alaska.

The fishery is conducted from small boats, usually about 30 feet in length. A net with lightweight, nearly invisible mesh sized to catch salmon by the gills is deployed and retrieved by a hydraulic reel. The 900-foot long net is weighted on the bottom with a lead-filled line, and has a cork-line, where foam-filled floats keep the top of the net at the surface of the water. Salmon swim into the net, are caught by their gill-plates, and are brought aboard the boat. The fish are bled and packed in ice, and sold to processors for the commercial market. A “fish-ticket” records the type, number and weight of fish transferred from fishing vessels to processors; weights are used to pay fishermen for their catch, and area biologists use the numbers to help manage the harvests. Fishing takes place during openers, periods of time authorized by the local area management biologists. An opener is between 12 and 48 hours long, once or twice a week, depending on catch and escapement needs. The fishery management is abundance based, and sonar fish counters placed in the river at Miles Lake monitor salmon escapement numbers. These fish counts are used to open and close the fishing periods to allow adequate escapement for spawning, subsistence, personal use and sport fisheries upriver. The commercial fishing managers are stationed in Cordova, the port serving the commercial fishing fleet.


Before western contact, Ahtna and Eyak Natives harvested Chinook, sockeye and coho salmon using funnel traps and spears in clear-water tributaries. In the muddy main stem and at the Copper River delta, weirs, gillnets, and dip nets were used. The Ahtna people managed the salmon resources through territorial use rights. Tribal “bands” were closely associated with geographic core areas that included a variety of subsistence resources, including fishing sites. The Ahtna preferred males for traditional dried fish, and selected for sex, often letting females go. Harvest by fish trap was often interrupted for processing fish, allowing escapement. Strong traditions against waste limited catch to what could be processed without spoilage, and when sufficient fish were caught, traps were closed until processing was complete, allowing escapement for spawning. At the turn of the 20th century western settlers introduced fish wheels, and by 1920, fish wheels and dip nets were the dominant methods for harvesting subsistence salmon. Today, subsistence fishing is still an important part of Alaskan life, and all Alaskan residents can participate in the fishery.

Alaska passed its first subsistence law in 1978, guaranteeing “customary and traditional use” of fish and game, and setting subsistence harvest as a priority in terms of resource allocation. Qualifying residents of Alaska can obtain an Alaska Subsistence Harvest Permit. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) mandated subsistence hunting and fishing preference for “rural” residents on federal lands in 1980. In 1989, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that ANILCA’s rural priority violated the Alaska Constitution. As a result, the federal government manages subsistence uses on federal public lands and waters in Alaska, and federal permits are only issued to residents of areas specifically defined in regulation. Subsistence fishers may use fish-wheels and dip nets for harvest and harvested fish may be traded or bartered for other goods or services. No in-season management adjustments to harvest are made, and, as subsistence needs increase, in-river escapement goals are increased to meet the needs of subsistence fishers.

Personal Use

Personal use fisheries are managed to maximize harvest potential for Alaska residents, who use dip-nets to capture fish, providing opportunity for participants to put fish “in the freezer” for family consumption. Fish may not be sold, traded or bartered. Catch limits are 15 salmon per individual and 30 salmon per household; only one can be a Chinook/King. In season management is based on run strength and timing as recorded at the Miles Lake sonar fish counter and harvest is estimated based on post season reporting. The personal use fishery is managed by opening and closing areas for harvest. The personal use fisheries managers are stationed in Glennallen.


Sport fishing for Chinook, sockeye, and coho salmon is popular within the Copper River watershed. The Klutina and Gulkana rivers are the most popular areas for king salmon, while coho fishing is popular on the Delta. Harvest data is based on a mail survey of a percentage of anglers. This fishery is managed by season “bag limits” and area closures by managers located in Glennallen.

© 2011 Copper River Knowledge System