Choose your level of information

At a Glance

'At a Glance' offers a brief summary of key findings for each of the 13 Alaska Salmon and People regions.

Dive Deeper

Select 'Dive Deeper' for an in-depth look into the patterns and processes leading to the diversity of the 13 Alaska Salmon and People regions we see today.

At a Glance: A diverse region of salmon and salmon-dependent people

Fewer than 2500 people live permanently in the Copper River region, an area comparable in size to the state of West Virginia. Sockeye salmon are dominant here, given the multiple large lakes available for rearing juvenile salmon. Though less abundant than sockeye, king salmon are deeply important to all salmon-connected people. Kings have declined in number since 2007.

Ahtna names for salmon

  • Luk’ae (salmon)
  • Nulaeggi (sockeye salmon)
  • Sesluugge’ (small sockeye salmon)
  • Natael luugge’ (Upper Copper River sockeye salmon)
  • Luk’ece’e (king salmon)
  • Kentsina’i (king salmon that spawns up Tonsina River)
  • Dak’aay; Dak’aagi (pink salmon)
  • Dadzaasi; Tultaeni (spawned out salmon)
  • Nulaeggi (sockeye salmon)

Below are key messages for the Copper River Region; for the full story click on Take a Deeper Dive.

The Copper River has the most diversity of salmon-producing habitats in Alaska.

The Copper River is the most diverse region in terms of salmon habitat. This diversity of habitat is associated with high densities of known salmon populations. For example, the density of Chinook salmon in the Copper River rivals the larger Kuskokwim River and sockeye salmon are even more densely distributed in the Copper River than in Bristol Bay.

Returning salmon are smaller than in the past, primarily because individuals are returning to spawn at a younger age. Shifts towards younger fish translates into less dollars per fish for commercial harvesters, fewer calories per fish for salmon-dependent people, and perhaps less satisfaction by anglers dreaming to catch a large fish.

Total length of streams in each of the SASAP regions, by salmon species. Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Leslie Jones. Anadromous Waters Catalog (AWC) of Alaska, 2018. Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity. doi:10.5063/F1057D7X.

The salmon fisheries of the basin are a microcosm for the management struggles that have played out across the rest of Alaska.

Copper River Ahtna Elders have witnessed dramatic change through time in their lives as salmon-dependent people. In 1984, after the passing of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act  (ANCSA) (1971) and Title VIII of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) (1980), Ahtna elders began what is now called the Katie John litigation in pursuit of the right to fish for salmon in their traditional site at Batzulnetas. In 1995, their rights were upheld in federal courts. This legal case exemplifies the continuing struggle between Tribal, state, and federal jurisdiction and power over Alaska Native subsistence fishing rights.

Fishwheel on the Copper River at Chistochina. By Wilson Justin.

Connected by road to Alaska’s population centers, subsistence and personal use salmon fisheries have grown rapidly, raising concerns among local residents.

In 2018, multiple sets of regulations governed subsistence and personal use fishing in the Copper River. A personal use dip net fishery occurred at Chitina, while subsistence fisheries took place in the Glennallen Subdistrict and near Cordova. In all Copper River fisheries combined from 1989 to 2016, 96% of the harvest was sockeye salmon. Since the 1970s, steady growth occurred in the upper Copper River fisheries (Figure). The growth of nonlocal participation in the Glennallen Subdistrict subsistence fishery and the Chitina personal use fishery has raised concerns among local residents, including Indigenous Ahtna Athabascan communities, regarding competition for fish and fishing sites.

Estimated subsistence and personal use salmon harvests on the Copper River, 1977 – 2016. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence. Subsistence and personal use harvest of salmon in Alaska, 1960-2012. Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity. doi:10.5063/F18P5XTN.

The Copper River Valley above Chitina is the focus of subsistence, sportfishing, and personal use fishermen, most of whom do not reside in the region.

Governance of the Copper River salmon fisheries takes place largely through state processes. Prior to in-river harvest, salmon are taken by commercial drift gillnet fishermen in marine waters managed by the ADF&G. Sport and personal use fisheries are prominent, as seen by the number of proposals concerning the fishery submitted to the Board of Fisheries. Also, data from the Alaska Wildlife Troopers reports that the Copper River region has the second highest number of personal use violations over the 2014-2017 period. Access to the Copper River and trespassing across posted Ahtna Native corporation lands has been a major concern to Ahtna due to the costliness and the lack of state attention to the problem.

Copper River near Chitina, photo by Doug Noon

The Copper River salmon fishery is the state’s sixth largest in value, having generated $1.6 billion in revenue since 1975. It is is highly dependent on hatchery production.

The variability in revenues generated in this fishery has been historically below average. Subsistence, personal use, and sport fish catch are comparatively small compared to the commercial catch, but of importance to local subsistence culture and personal use fishers from urban areas of the state. Striking and not comparable to any other fishery in the state, the local share of harvest revenues is insignificant. Historically, two thirds of harvest revenue has gone to non-local Alaska residents residing in the urban part of the state, while the remaining third was shared among permit holders residing outside Alaska and nonlocal rural residents of Alaska.

Tobias Schwoerer. Regional commercial salmon permit earnings by residency status, Alaska, 1975-2016. Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity. doi:10.5063/F1WW7FZ2.

Case Studies

Development Concerns

Fish-friendly culverts: Lined with streambed material, this culvert spans the full width of the natural stream channel, providing more natural conditions for fish passage. Photo: Copper River Watershed Project

Development issue concerns in the Copper River region are significant. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline travels over 500 miles from north to south through the Copper River valley.  It crosses the river itself or major salmon spawning tributaries five times. The potential for an oil spill entering the Copper River and traveling downstream has been identified by environmental and fishermen’s groups as exceedingly high due to the lack of adequate investment in planning and response capabilities for such an event. The Copper River Watershed Project has spearheaded an effort to create a citizen monitoring and oversight group. The effort is supported by fishermen’s and environmental groups, however there has been no response by the state, federal government or oil industry to develop such a program.

The Copper River and its salmon supporting tributaries is paralleled by stretches of the Glenn and Richardson Highways for much of its course above Chitina. The highways and associated road systems cross over the river and tributaries in numerous locations. Associated with these forms of development are culverts and stormwater run-off, both of which have proven to be major threats to salmonid reproduction in other areas such as Washington and Oregon. The Copper River Watershed Project has undertaken culvert assessment and in coordination with state agencies – Department of Transportation and Habitat – assisted in identifying and replacing six significant culverts along the Copper River Valley. However, the number of culverts and crossings of the Copper River to be repaired and replaced is extremely high. Funding availability for such projects is scarce and repair/replace opportunities are infrequent.

The Katie John Decision – Determining Extent of Federal Jurisdiction over Customary and Traditional Salmon Fisheries

Ahtna leader Wilson Justin stands at the memorial to Katie John erected at Batzulnetas, the fish camp at which she fought for the right to continue customary and traditional salmon fishing. Credit: Steve J. Langdon

When US Army explorer Lt. Henry Allen arrived at the headwaters of the Copper River in 1885, he found the local people engaged in harvesting and processing salmon to use for the winter food as they had been for centuries. He named one of these meeting places Batzulnetas – an Anglicization of the name for the leader of the local group. For Ahtna, salmon were a foundational food source with whom they had a special relationship in order to insure the return of salmon in the future.

Recent research has documented the extensive traditional knowledge about salmon held by the Ahtna and the difficulties the Ahtna have faced in maintaining their relationship with salmon following the coming of Americans (Simeone and Kari 2002, Simeone and McCall 2007, Simeone 2014, Simeone 2018). The first experience of impact came immediately following the establishment of a cannery on the Copper River below Chitina in 1915. Ahtna observed that their harvests were sharply declining and they complained to federal agents that salmon populations were being damaged. They asked the agents to have the cannery removed. Investigations by federal agents found that Ahtna subsistence harvests had fallen form nearly 44,000 fish in 1915 to 5,500 in 1918 (Simeone and McCall 2007:23).

Fisheries agents began implementing regulations on the commercial fishery in 1918 but runs did not recover and in 1921 commercial salmon fishing in the Copper River was prohibited. Commercial fishing was allowed to continue at the mouth of the river and subsequent years provided evidence that the commercial fishery seriously cut into Ahtna subsistence harvests and spawning escapements.

During these years, Ahtna used fish wheels for most of their harvests with dip nets and rod and reel also contributing. Ahtna were the overwhelming majority of salmon harvesters on the Copper River after the passage of the White Act in 1924, whose purpose was to regulate harvests to insure escapement until 1960 when the state of Alaska took over fishery management from the federal government (Simone and McCall 2007).

At Batzulnetas, traditional weirs and traps were banned by federal marshals in the 1940s. Katie John, a young woman at the time, had fished there and knew it as her family’s ancestral fishing site and loved it.  However, her family had to move from their customary and traditional site and so began fishing at Mentasta about 20 miles away where they continued their salmon fishing. In 1960 the newly created State of Alaska took over salmon management and in 1964 closed down the subsistence fishery at Batzulnetas and all other traditional salmon fishing sites in the upper Copper River. Despite the closure, Batzulnetas endured in the minds of the Upper Ahtna as a special place.

In 1971, under the terms of the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement (ANCSA), aboriginal fishing and hunting rights of Alaska Natives were “extinguished” but with the proviso that Alaska Native subsistence needs were to be taken care of by state and federal policies. The State did not act to protect and provide for Alaska Native subsistence needs although a state law stating that subsistence was to be the priority for harvests when shortages occurred was passed in 1978. Nevertheless, the State continued the ban on subsistence harvests in the upper Copper River.

In 1981 the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) was passed placing much of Alaska land and waters in federal jurisdictions. Title 8 of the act provided a rural resident subsistence preference, distinguishing Alaska Native from non Native bases. The priority was to be activated when resource strength could not accommodate users other than rural residents. State regulatory authority on federal lands was tied to the implementation of a similar policy for state resource allocation. In the early years after the passage of ANILCA, in 1984, Katie John and Doris Charles submitted a proposal requesting the Alaska Board of Fish to allow them to subsistence salmon fish at Batzulnetas. Their request was denied despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of salmon were being taken for commercial and sport purposes in the ocean and on the river below them.

In 1985, Katie John and two other elders filed suit to force the Board of Fisheries to open their fishery and won their case. In response, the State Board of Fish provided a limited, highly restrictive and inadequate opening. Katie John returned to court and the state opening was struck down as too restrictive. Before the State Board of Fish could respond, the state supreme court held in the McDowell (1989) case that a rural (or place-based) preference was unconstitutional under the state constitution.

When the Alaska legislature chose not to pursue a constitutional change, the federal Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture began the process of providing for the ANILCA rural preference on federal lands. Initially, the federal government provided the same limited opening that had been determined to be inadequate in 1985. Katie John, using Native American Rights Fund (NARF) lawyers, petitioned for reconsideration of the regulation to which the federal agencies responded that Tanada Creek and the upper Copper River were navigable waters and that such waters were not considered “public lands” and therefore not subject to Title 8 jurisdiction.

Native American Rights Fund (NARF) lawyers, representing Katie John and other plaintiffs, filed suit stating that this construction of navigable waters was in error in that Section 102 of ANILCA states “the term ‘lands’ means land, waters, and interests therein…” In 1991, the question of whether navigable waters were included as part of public lands was litigated and it was determined by the Ninth Circuit of Appeals that the federal government indeed had an “interest” in “reserved water rights.” Further legal questions were also addressed in subsequent cases bringing about decisions over ownership of waters, submerged lands, and state compliance with federal law.

In March 1994 the case was argued with the previously opposed federal government now joining with Katie John concerning the federal “interest” in “navigable waters.” Less than a month later, the court concluded that the federal government, not the state, had the authority to regulate the taking of fish on “navigable waters” in “public lands” stipulating that the US government “holds title to an interest in navigable waters in Alaska.”  The decision was appealed to the Ninth Circuit court that determined in April,1995 that subsistence priority applies to inland navigable waters in which the United States has reserved water rights. Federal agencies then went on to determine which waters were included in that definition. These determinations in 1999 extended federal jurisdiction over inland “navigable waters” in or adjacent to federal conservation units, not including the general public domain lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

While the State and other interested parties explored the possibility of appealing the ruling to the Supreme Court, the Governor of Alaska decided not to pursue it.  This decision paved the way for Katie John and the Upper Ahtna to be authorized by the Federal Subsistence Board (FSB) to return to Tanada Creek and engage in salmon harvesting and preservation at their “customary and traditional location.”


Case, David S. and David A. Voluck.  2012. Alaska Natives and American Laws.  Third edition. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.

Copper River Salmon Workshop II Proceedings. 2006. Anchorage, AK. Alaska Sea Grant College Program.

Fall, James A. and Lee Stratton.  (1984). The Harvest and Use of Copper River Salmon:  A Background Report. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence Technical Paper No. 96.  Anchorage.

Fall, James A. and William E. Simeone. (2010).  Customary and Traditional Use Worksheet: Salmon, Chitina Subdistrict, Prince William Sound Management Area. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence Special Publication No. BOF 2010-04. Prepared for the March 2010 Anchorage Board of Fisheries Meeting. Anchorage.

Gho, M., Iverson, K., & Farrington, C. (2014). Overview of Permit Holdings, Harvests, and Estimates of Gross Earnings in the Cook Inlet Salmon Drift Gillnet Fishery, 1975-2012 (CFEC Report No. 14–01N). Juneau, Alaska: Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Henderson, M. M., Criddle, K. R., & Lee, T. (1999). The Economic Value of Alaska’s Copper River Personal Use and Subsistence Fisheries. Alaska Fishery Research Bulletin, 6(2), 63–69.

Holen, D. (2004). The Atna’ and the Political Ecology of the Copper River Fishery, Alaska. Arctic Anthropology, 41(1), 58–70.

Holen, D., Fall, J. A., & La Vine, R. (2011). Customary and Traditional Use Worksheet: Salmon, Copper River District, Prince William Sound Management Area (Special Publication No. BOF 2011-06) (p. 46). Anchorage, Alaska: Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Josephson, A. (1997). Katie John and Totemoff: The United States and Alaska Clash over the Reserved Water Rights Doctrine and Native Alaska Hunting and Fishing Rights-The US Supreme Court Passes on an Opportunity to Resolve the Subsistence Debate. Dickinson Journal of Environmental Law & Policy, 6, 225. Retrieved from

Lang, D. W. (2010). A Survey of Sport Fish Use on the Copper River Delta, Alaska (General Technical Report No. PNW-GTR-814) (p. 56). US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. Retrieved from

Naves, L. C., Simeone, W. E., Lowe, M. E., Valentine, E. M., Stickwan, G., & Brady, J. (2015). Cultural Consensus on Salmon Fisheries and Ecology in the Copper River, Alaska. ARCTIC, 68(2), 210.

Simeone, William E. (1998).  Managing Competition: The Copper River Fishery. Cultural Survival Quarterly 22(3):53-56.

Simeone, William E. and James Kari.  (2002). Traditional Knowledge and Fishing Practices of the Ahtna of the Copper River, Alaska.  Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence Technical Paper No. 270. Juneau.

Simeone, W. E., McCall Valentine, E., & Tuttle, S. (2007). Ahtna Knowledge of Long-Term Changes in Salmon Runs in the Upper Copper River Drainage, Alaska (Technical Paper No. 324) (p. 144). Juneau, Alaska: Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Need raw data?

Go to KNB Knowledge