The Last Salmon

Science & Memory visual journalists Mary Jane Schulte and Elora Overbey followed the Baird Canyon fish count for five days in July of 2014. This fish count was first employed in 2007 to estimate the in-river abundance of Chinook and Sockeye salmon returning to the Copper River. Here, the Schulte and Overbey team follow Matt Piche and his team from the Baird Canyon Research Camp as they work to tag the year’s last salmon.

Past miles of braided river, large channels of rapids, The Million Dollar Bridge and a huge flood plain with floating chunks of glacial ice is a place called Baird Canyon. The first of two field camps run by the Native Village of Eyak, Baird Canyon is the first of two mark and recapture sites for tagging Chinook salmon in the Copper River with the goal of estimating the escapement population count of the giant fish that can weigh upwards of 100 pounds.

Fishwheels are used to catch the fish that are then measured, fitted with a yellow RFID (radio frequency identification) external spaghetti tag, an operculum punch, and released back into the river. As the fish continue migrating up the Copper River they mix with the untagged Chinook that were not caught by the fishwheels. By the time the fish reach the recapture site at Canyon Creek the fish have completely mixed together and the ratio of tagged to untagged fish caught in the Canyon Creek fishwheels are used to estimate a number for the escapement population, the portion of fish that escape commercial and recreational fishing and make the return journey to their freshwater spawning grounds.

The Native Village of Eyak, a federally recognized self-governing tribe located on the Copper River Delta in Cordova, Alaska, began conducting Chinook salmon mark and recapture studies because there was no annual estimation of Chinook salmon on the Copper River. They just wrapped up their 14th season of conducting escapement monitoring on the Copper River.  Having an escapement number allows for monitoring the population health of the salmon returning home and gives numbers that are used to help determine trends and activity within the system.

The Alaskan Department of Fish and Game uses the numbers acquired by the Native Village of Eyak to help manage the personal use fishery. Commercial fisheries use the escapement estimate as a post-season management tool. Since 2002 there have been three years when the escapement goal for Chinook hasn’t been met.

Matt Piche, Natural Resources Manager at the Native Village of Eyak and Camp Director at Baird Canyon says “The goal of everyone in Alaska is to keep these fish running strong.”