The Copper River and most of its tributaries are migration routes for sockeye, coho, chum, and king salmon in Wrangell and are an important subsistence fisheries within the park's boundaries. Small lakes and clear water tributaries contain lake trout, Dolly Varden, burbot, grayling, cutthroat and rainbow trout, sculpin, suckers, and whitefish. Despite the uniqueness and diversity of Wrangell-St. Elias, relatively few scientific investigations have been undertaken resulting in a paucity of information about the environment, its inhabitants and the role park/preserve resources play in fulfilling a subsistence lifestyle. Wrangell-St. Elias is home to a tremendous array of fish resources. With hundreds of miles of streams draining into two of Alaska's major river systems, the Park contains a diverse range of fish species as well as many abundant populations, including salmon populations that support large fisheries. The knowledge of fish species that are not actively pursued by anglers remains relatively limited.
Fish habitat in the Park ranges from large glacial rivers and streams to small clear water streams, as well as a range of lentic habitats ranging from tundra ponds to large lakes. Most of the Park drains into either the Copper River or the Yukon River. A small portion of the Park near Yakutat is drained by several small order streams that flow directly into the Gulf of Alaska.
Anadromous fish, including salmon and rainbow steelhead trout, dominate the fish communities in the Copper River. These fish transport large quantities of marine derived nutrients into otherwise nutrient poor systems. These marine derived nutrients support many of our aquatic ecosystems. Dolly Varden and sculpins inhabit many of what appear to be inhospitable, steep, silt-laden glacial streams. Lake trout and arctic grayling dominate many of our lake systems as the top predator in the aquatic food web. Some of the northernmost populations of rainbow steelhead trout occur within the Park/Preserve.
A tremendous range of fisheries research opportunities exists within park and preserve. Although we believe that the park's Dolly Varden populations are correctly identified as Dolly Varden, some genetic analysis is needed to ensure that these species are truly Dolly Varden and not arctic char or, by some remote chance, bull trout. Establishing a historic range of salmon escapement into many of the watersheds, and the corresponding levels of marine derived nutrients transported into these systems, would be a valuable tool in managing for natural and healthy fish and wildlife populations. Relatively little is known regarding the effect of sport fisheries within the Park on resident species, such as lake trout, burbot, rainbow trout, and arctic grayling.
Wrangell-St. Elias is responsible for the administration and in-season management of Federal subsistence fisheries in the Copper River. Copper River subsistence fisheries provide a substantial amount of salmon for consumption by both rural and urban Alaskans. Three Federal subsistence salmon fisheries occur in the Copper River, the Chitina Subdistrict, the Glennallen Subdistrict, and the Batzulnetas Area fisheries. Nearly 40,000 salmon are harvested annually by Federally qualified subsistence users. An additional 160,000 or more salmon are harvested in the Copper River in state-managed subsistence fisheries. 700,000 to 1,250,000 salmon are harvested annually in the commercial fishery in the Copper River District. In 2002 approximately 170 households participated in subsistence fisheries under Federal regulations. Nearly 11,000 households have participated in subsistence fisheries under state regulations in past years.
Federally qualified subsistence fishers may use fishwheels, dipnets or rod and reel to take salmon. The Batzulnetas Area fishery occurs entirely within the Park and is ground zero for Federal subsistence fisheries management. This is the site where Katie John operates her fishwheel. The ninth circuit court decision in Alaska v. Babbitt, 72 F.3d at 703-704, commonly referred to as the Katie John decision, resulted in the expansion of Federal management throughout over 60 percent of Alaska's lakes and rivers. Information regarding the subsistence fisheries harvest in the Copper River is relatively limited. A sonar at Miles Lake estimates the number of salmon that migrate into the Copper River. The Park operates a weir in Tanada Creek, upstream of the Batzulnetas Area fishery. Both federal and state fishers are required to return an annual harvest report. In-season harvest information is not available.