UPDATED – May 20, 2016
Seven out of every 11 Kenai River late-run king salmon killed last year died in gillnets as what was once the most valuable sport fishery in Alaska continued to spiral downward, according to data from the state of Alaska.
Licensing numbers from the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation now point to what can only be called the economic collapse of in-river tourism businesses built around what was once one of the most famous freshwater fisheries in the world. Almost 40 percent of the fishing guides licensed to run powerboats on the Kenai nine years ago are gone.
The business body count is easily tallied. The economic loss is harder to quantify. A nearly decade old study conducted for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 2007 calculated that the average guided, nonresident angler spent $770 per day to fish Kenai.
Last year, according to Fish and Game statistics, there were some 456,000 angler-days of effort put into the in-river fisheries. An angler-day is one angler fishing one day. About 28 percent of the angler days came from guided anglers.
Given these numbers, one can estimate close to 128,000 guided anglers fished a day on the river. Extrapolating from the 2007 study, that number of anglers would create a fishery worth up to $98 million, depending on whether the guided anglers were non-resident or residents, who spend slightly less on fishing trips.
If a 40 percent drop in the number of guides corresponded to a 40 percent drop in business, the loss on $98 million would come to about $39 million. But the situation is nowhere that simple, starting with the fact that there are serious questions as to whether the Kenai is worth $770 per day to anglers anymore.
A move to less-valuable salmon
As the Peninsula Clarion newspaper in Kenai first noted a more than a year ago, surviving Kenai sport fishing businesses have increasingly shifted some of their marketing from trophy king salmon to cooler-filling sockeye salmon in an effort to survive. As a tourist attraction, however, sockeye are far less valuable than kings.
“It’s hard to quantify, but there’s definitely a loss of revenue,” long time Kenai guide Mike Fenton said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “There is a financial hit. You’re going to lose a percentage.”
Fenton had limited time for talk because he was at work at his second job necessary to pay his bills in the winter. Kenai guiding might look like a pleasant way to make a living, but almost no one can make a living guiding on the Kenai these days.
To try to cover summer losses associated with the crash in a king fishery that once boasted a bounty of 60- to 80-pound salmon-of-a-lifetime, many Kenai guides have taken to helping clients catch plentiful 6- to 8-pound sockeye.
Others have shifted to drift-boat guiding for rainbow trout. While the number of guides licensed to use powerboats, the mainstay of the king salmon fishery, is down 40 percent, the overall number of guides is down only 35 percent due to a shift to drift. The number of drifts guides on the river in 2015 was actually up 41 percent from the 1985-1995 average.
As guide businesses have spread out along the river to focus on fish other than kings, angler-days spent by residents and non-residents have increased by about 10 percent over the past decades, according to Fish and Game figures, and the non-resident catch of sockeye by guided anglers has mushroomed. State numbers show a 131 percent increase from a catch of 16,620 in 2007 to 38,501 in 2014. Over the same time period, the unguided harvest — which includes both residents Alaskans and non-resident without guides — rose only 17 percent.
Fewer guides putting more non-resident anglers on the river in an effort to survive isn’t the best economic model, Fenton admitted, and it comes with some problems. A lot of the sockeye guides take people ashore to fish, he said, and they then compete for space with both Alaska residents and unguided non-resident.
The result is an increase in competition even as the overall economic value of the Kenai fishery declines.
“It’s really frustrating,” he said.
Small businesses suffer
The people paying the highest price for these changes would appear to be small Alaska businessmen and women. Total Kenai guide permits issued to residents have fallen 31 percent from a high of 322 in the mid-2000s to 222 last year. This was the lowest number of Alaskans working on the river in two decades. Alaska-based guides still out number non-resident guides two to one, but they used to out number non-resident three to one.
Which guides – resident or non-resident – benefit the Kenai community more is hard to say. From a purely economic standpoint, guides who open lodges for the summer and mothball them for the winter pay the same property taxes as resident guides, but demand nothing in terms of such costly public services as schools for their kids and winter snow plowing.
Whether this is good or bad is a judgement value hard to sort out purely with numbers. The economic pluses and minuses of seasonal tourism jobs are as tangled as the economic pluses and minuses of seasonal commercial fishing jobs, but at the end of the day all have a common denominator: money.
Fish and Game is now planning a new study to try to determine the importance of angler money to Southcentral Alaska and Kenai Peninsula economies. The vast majority of Kenai River anglers are non-Kenai Peninsula residents, and where anglers come from plays a direct role in how much money they leave on the Peninsula, according to the 2007 economic study.
It found that on average, unguided Alaska residents – most likely people from Anchorage or the Matanuska-Susitna valley – spent on average about $90 per day to fish the Kenai. That was significantly less than half of the $210 spent by the average unguided non-resident coming to the Kenai from elsewhere in the world.
Alaska residents who went to the Kenai to fish with a guide in 2007 spent more – $510 on average – but the majority of those anglers were pursuing kings. The average, guided non-resident spent the most that year – a whopping $770 on average – but again that number was heavily weighted toward fishing trips for trophy kings.
Everyone involved in the Kenai tourism business is confident the value of a guided angler day is going to drop significantly when the state re-examines angler spending habits in the new, king-short world.
“We’re losing a lot of money,” said Kenai River Sportfishing Association director Ricky Gease. Gease has watched the fisheries on the Kenai evolve for years and wonders where the fishing-dependent tourism economy of the Peninsula is headed at a time when the state as a whole is facing huge economic problems due to a global slump in oil prices.
The site of Alaska’s first big oil boom, the Kenai’s value as an oil province has been fading for decades although it has seen a resurgence in the search for natural gas to fuel Anchorage. Still, the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District reported jobs losses in construction, and oil and gas last year, but said tourism was generally strong.
Tourism is the healthiest segment of the Alaska economy overall, but all regions of the state don’t see the same benefits. And the Peninsula, which is on summer weekends invaded by hordes of Alaskans fleeing the state’s largest city, has something of a strained relationship with tourism.
It likes and needs tourist dollars. A study by the University of Washington found the local sales tax collected at a Fred Meyer store built not far from the Kenai River in Soldotna in 1994 provides 48 percent of the revenue to help run that city. It has been estimated that tourist spending accounts for up to a third of that sales tax money. Often seemingly deserted in winter, the 158,000-square foot Freddie’s is as packed as Macy’s on sale day for most of the summer.
But Peninsula residents aren’t always happy about sharing their little slice of paradise with summer visitors. Some have joked for years about “blowing the bridges” on the Sterling Highway to stop the weekend invasions of anglers and dipnetters from Alaska’s urban heartland to the north. How much this has influenced the politics of Kenai salmon management is unclear.
Gease, Fenton and others praise Alaska Fish and Game for decades of generally sound biological management of the state’s salmon resources, but sometimes question the state’s economic management of Kenai fisheries.
Almost 65 percent of the kings caught on the Kenai last year were caught in the commercial fishery where they were worth an average of $2.05 per pound to commercial fisherman, according to Fish and Game. A 40-pound king, a respectable catch for the Kenai these days, would be worth $82 there, or about a tenth of what a nonresident, guided anglers would pay simply for the chance to catch one of those fish in the river.
Getting a king salmon past nets and into the river, however, presents problems. Some of those problems are technical, but the biggest ones are political.
Commercial fishing interests which have long dominated salmon management in the Cook Inlet region are reluctant to modify the ways in which they fish, and they have engaged in a decades long war with sport fishing interests over who gets to catch what Inlet salmon and how much.
As a practical business matter, it is in the interest of commercial fishermen to destroy the Kenai late-run king salmon sport fishery to eliminate a king salmon by-catch problem that complicates the harvest of sockeye salmon — the mainstay of the commercial fishery.
Unguided anglers are a silent majority easily overlooked in the highly political process of Alaska salmon allocation, but fishing guides – like commercial fishermen – have economic skin in the game and thus become politically involved when the state Board of Fisheries sets about deciding catch regulations.
Kill the guides
From the standpoint of commercial interests, the politics of the situation are simple: The fewer the king-salmon guides, the smaller the political opposition for commercial fishing interests trying to hang onto a harvest of about 80 percent of all Inlet salmon. The commercial fishermen are only looking out for their self interests, having found themselves in a unique struggle since shortly after Alaska voters amended the state constitution in 1973 to allow the Legislature to create the Limited Entry Act.
Limited Entry fixed the number of commercial fishermen allowed to work in Alaska in an effort to control competition and ensure they could all make a living by working summers in the commercial fishing business. And most places in the state, the law worked exactly as intended.
But in Cook Inlet, commercial fishermen found themselves fighting recreational anglers for fish as the population of the Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna boroughs grew from a combined total of approximately 175,000 people in 1975 to 400,000 or more today.
At the same time, tourism on the Kenai was on the upswing, as residents there looked for new business opportunities, and Alaska salmon prices were falling as the wild fish which once dominated the market gave way to farmed fish. In a follow-up to Limited Entry, salmon farming was banned in Alaska in 1989 in part to protect Alaska salmon from competition from farmed fish.
That plan failed miserably. Salmon farms now provide about 70 percent of the fish for global consumption despite years of record harvests of salmon in Alaska. Globally, a significant portion of the wild salmon come from Alaska, but the 49th state is now a small player in the global salmon market.
In that regard, commercial salmon fishermen are like Alaska oil producers. Global markets control the price of their product no matter how little or how much they produce.
Faced with this sort of market problem, Inlet commercial fisherman have fought hard to hang onto every salmon they can get. As a result, the Alaska Board of Fisheries and state fisheries managers have struggled to come up with fishing schemes that would put the maximum number of king salmon in the Kenai while maintaining a high commercial harvest of sockeyes.
Their plans haven’t worked so well.
With most of the biologically allowable harvest of kings going into commercial nets in Cook Inlet, tourism businesses built around the once flourishing king salmon fishery in the river have struggled and died. Anglers harvested 8,560 of the big fish in the Kenai in 2007. In 2015, the entire king salmon harvest — the 7,549 kings reported caught in commercial nets plus an in-river harvest estimated at 4,093 fish — was about the same.
Kenai anglers with decades of experience on the river, along with older fishing guides, have been talking for years about the death of the late-run sport fishery for kings. The data are now proving them out.
But not only are tourism businesses built around the king salmon sport fishery disappearing as a result of weak runs and state harvest schemes. The once-world-famous return of monster kings is itself disappearing for reasons that are far less clear.
Long gone are the glory years of the fishery that followed in the wake of the late Les Anderson’s 97 1/4-pound, world-record king in 1985. Over the course of the next decade, a lot of Alaskans and possibly even more tourists descended on the river in the quest to catch the first 100-pounder on rod and reel. Tourism boomed, but no one ever caught the mythical salmonid version of Moby Dick.
And now the quest for a 100 pounder seems a distance dream. Not only have the early and late runs of Kenai kings decreased in number in the past decade, the fish themselves have gotten smaller despite a change in sport fishing regulations designed to protect the biggest of the big fish.
Biologists once suspected there might genetic implications to the removal of big kings from the gene pool. So the state in 2003 imposed a slot limit on the early run requiring anglers to release fish between 40 and 55 inches. Those fish weigh somewhere from 35 to 80 pounds.
Since the regulation was implemented, there have been no reports of early-run fish over 80 pounds being caught, and the early run has continued to get weaker and smaller despite closures of both the sport and commercial fisheries.
Shrunken fishery, shrunken fish
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the nearly 2-million-acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, has been operating weirs on the Killey and Funny rivers, two major spawning tributaries of the Kenai, to gather age and size data on returning early-run fish for several years now.
What they’ve found is that the early kings are generally small, averaging only about 24 inches and reaching a maximum of only about 39 inches.
Some scientists suspect food shortages in the ocean are causing reductions in both size and numbers. There has been increasing discussion about the possibility the natural carrying capacity of the North Pacific Ocean has been exceeded by the introduction of hundreds of millions of juvenile hatchery fish.
“….Several lines of evidence indicate that (hatchery) pink salmon… are having a large top-down influence on other salmon species, other upper trophic level pelagic species, plankton standing stocks, and by inference, the functioning of the open-ocean eco-system,” Alan Springer and Gus van Vliet of the Institute of Marine Science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks warned in a paper published three years ago.
They joined other scientists in cautioning that hatcheries in Japan, Alaska, and now Russian are pumping so many fish into the North Pacific that the range for salmon might be overgrazed, leading to fewer and smaller wild fish. If that theory is correct, the demise of the once world-famous Kenai king salmon fishery might not be a temporary problem as most in Alaska would prefer to believe.
Smallish Kenai kings might be the new norm, and that alone could mean the sport fishing businesses that once flourished on the Peninsula will never return. It could mean the fabled Kenai kings – the 60-pound and larger fish that seemed almost common at one time – are the stuff of history.
And the demise of what “Field and Stream” magazine in 2004 concluded was the number one angling experience in North America might have been killed off not by the bycatch of kings in commercial sockeye nets, or the Cook Inlet fish wars, but by the rise of the hatcheries the state of Alaska supported in an effort to boost commercial fisheries that now have trouble competing with cheaper farmed fish in global markets.
The answer to soft prices, in the eyes of some commercial fishermen, has been to produce ever more hatchery fish. The state that banned farmed fish supposedly because of concerns about what farmed fish could do to the environment if they go out of their pens is now world leader in dumping hatchery fish into the ocean.
The results have been impressive. There is no denying that. A third of the 2015 commercial harvest of salmon of 264 million fish was made up of hatchery stock. Alaska these days is producing more salmon than ever, but there is a question as to whether they are the right salmon.
It is possible that a few salmon worth a lot could be more valuable to the state economy than a lot of salmon worth little. But the 49th state, which has a commendable record for wisely managing its salmon and maximizing the return for commercial fishermen, has never given much attention to how to maximize the economic value of those same resources.
Fisheries managers talk a lot about maximum sustained yield, a biological concept. They have never been heard to discuss maximum economic yield. As a result, a lot of the economic value of the Kenai appears to have bled away as Kenai king salmon have declined.
The estimated value of those 7,549 Kenai kings reported caught in commercial nets in Cook Inlet last year? About $248,000, or about what the Kenai economy would have expected to gain from 46 guided, king-salmon anglers spending a week each fishing the Kenai in 2007.
CORRECTION: This story was corrected on May 20, 2016. The late-run Chinook sport catch was increased to 4,093 and relinked to the Alaska Deapartment of Fish and Game website to replace an 1,100 fish count and link that came from another Alaska publication.