by Seth Zuckerman
As the deck of his small boat pitches in the choppy waters off Alaska's Copper River delta, fisherman R.J. Kopchak paws through his net to untangle a lively 40-pound king salmon. He severs one of its gills to deliver the coup de grace, then reels the rest of the net on board to receive the gift of another dozen salmon ensnared in the light-green nylon mesh.
Kopchak's work places him in the sweet spot, where commercial success meets ecological integrity. Thanks to the cachet of the Copper River brand, this fishery brings relatively high returns to the several hundred men and women who each season ply the waters off Alaska's south-central coast in pursuit of king and sockeye salmon. Their marketing success rests on a foundation of biological health: Copper River salmon thrive because of the sheer abundance of wild nature, from headwaters to continental shelf. And for now, local inhabitants have figured out how to dance in step with the forces that yield this abundance.
It wasn't always so. Until Alaska attained statehood in 1959, the federal government set the rules about where and how to fish, in close consultation with salmon-packing companies that cared more for short-term gain than for the enduring strength of the fishery.
"The federal guys didn't control it properly," recalls Ralph Pirtle, a retired biologist who managed the Copper River fishery from 1959 to 1980. "They let it be overfished."
In reaction, the framers of Alaska's constitution enshrined the health of the salmon runs as the first commandment of fisheries. State agencies employ local biologists who decide from week to week how much fishing to permit while still allowing enough salmon upstream to reproduce.
These managers draw on several sophisticated tools. Sonar stations along the banks of the Copper count the number of fish passing by, and airborne spotters scan tributaries to count salmon preparing to spawn. Biologists compare these totals with the number of fish they expect at each point in the season; if too few are detected, the agency cuts back on fishing.