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Notes from the Field: Copper River Delta

A spring visit to Cordova, Alaska to witness the return of the shorebirds and salmon

May is a busy month for the town of Cordova. Nestled behind the Copper River Delta, one of the largest and most productive ecosystems in the world and home to prized Copper River Sockeye fishery, the town is busy preparing for not only the arrival of the annual spring salmon season, but for the millions of migratory birds who make critical stops along the Delta on their way up the Pacific Flyway.

aerial shot of turquoise water and wetland with mountain and forests in background
The Copper River Delta hosts more than five million shorebirds and other migratory birds every spring on their way up the Pacific Flyway, along with one of the richest salmon fisheries in the world.

The birds are what brought me and Ecotrust’s founder Spencer Beebe for a visit in early May. We met up with some old friends at the Prince William Sound Science Center, a research organization that Spencer helped get off the ground in 1989, and some other avid birders to catch a glimpse of the millions of shorebirds making their way towards the Yukon, and get a beat on this amazing place at the northern end of Salmon Nation. Here are just a few of the amazing people and places we visited.

The rich tidal mudflats of the Delta host a variety of migratory shorebirds and residents as well, including Western Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Least Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, Common Snipe, Red-necked Phalaropes, Spotted Sandpipers,  Semipalmated Plovers, and Dunlin, along with Tundra Swans, Oystercatchers, and gulls. We also spotted a number of songbirds, including Pine Grosbeak, Stellar’s Jay, and Golden-Crowned Kinglets.

A sign nailed to a wooded dock reads

The Prince William Sound Science Center supports communities in the Gulf of Alaska to maintain socioeconomic resilience among healthy, functioning ecosystems through research and education.

The Center is also home to the Oil Spill Recovery Institute, founded after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, which provides research, education, and demonstration projects designed to respond to and understand the effects of oil spills in the Arctic and sub-Arctic marine environments.

woman with headphones on in the cockpit of a plane talks to the pilot

Mary Anne Bishop is an ecologist who leads science research at Prince William Sound Science Center. For more than a decade, Mary Anne has been a co-principal investigator on the Pacific Flyway Shorebird Migration Program studying migration strategies and the importance of coastal habitats used by shorebirds during spring migration.

During our visit, we spent an afternoon flying over the Delta with Mary Anne, as she tracked a group of shorebirds that had been tagged at Gray’s Harbor, Washington a few days prior in order to monitor their flight path north.

three people stand inside a boat

Along with Mary Anne, we paid a visit to R.J. Kopchak, who has spent the last 30 years in Cordova doing everything under the sun, from commercial fishing to serving as the first board chair and president of the Prince William Sound Science Center that he helped to found in 1989. R.J. also led Ecotrust’s Copper River Program, where he worked on watershed scale approaches for restoring wild salmon and their habitat. R.J. is pictured here with Spencer and Jane Beebe, giving us a tour of his latest endeavor, a tender operation that will provide ice and other necessities to the fishing fleet during the 2015 salmon season.

man in orange raincoat and waders with a red beard and stocking hat stands in a boat pointing to a computer screen

Rob Campbell is a biological oceanographer at the Prince William Sound Science Center who found his way to Cordova eight years ago from north of Toronto, via Hamburg, Germany where he pursued his doctorate in oceanography.

Rob’s current research at the is centered around trying to understand how plankton and fish interact with their physical environment (temperature, salinity, nutrients) to produce the patterns we see in nature.

Copper River salmon have been the foundation for the regional economy since time immemorial. Salmon were the measure of wealth and the key to survival for the indigenous people of the region. Athabascan people settled here before recorded time, and left their mark on the language of both the Eyak and the Ahtna. The first settlers of the region share the same ancestry, but the languages of the Eyak of the Copper River Delta, and the Ahtna of the Copper River Basin developed independently, separated from their mother language by some 1,500 years. Although separated by mountains and glaciers, the Ahtna and Eyak have always shared the salmon of the river system.

Harbor full of fishing boats
Commercial fishing fleet, Cordova, AK

Subsistence is a major factor in the economy of both the upper and lower reaches of the river. Jobs are few, most are seasonal, and wild game, fish, birds, berries, eggs, herbs, and plants are all important to the subsistence lifestyle. Each year on the lower river, Cordova residents harvest about 175 pounds of subsistence food per person. In the upper basin, residents in Chitina harvest about 340 pounds, and residents in Chistochina about 260 pounds. Almost all families participate in subsistence foods harvest, and Copper River salmon are the most important component in the subsistence economy.

Over the last one hundred years, commercial fishermen at the mouth of the river, and personal use and sports fishermen in the upper watershed area have come to share in the harvest of the salmon. About 1.4 million salmon are harvested at the mouth of the Copper River by the commercial fishing fleet, contributing about $20 million each year to the regional economy. Sport-fishing brings in over $5 million, and subsistence and personal use of the fisheries are valued in excess of $1.5 million.

 
 
 
Thank you to Shoaib Tareen for his outstanding photography and company; to R.J. and Barclay Kopchak for their wonderful hospitality and salmon chowder; and to Mary Anne Bishop, Rob Campbell, and staff of the Prince William Sound Science Center for sharing their latest research on land, sea, and air!