The money fish


Chinook salmon/Wikimedia Commons

New economic data might make Alaskans want to think twice about cursing those fish-filled coolers soon to start passing through Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage.

Tourists appear willing to pump a whole lot of money into the 49 state’s struggling economy to try to fill an insulated container with the flesh of dead salmon.

Writing  in Marine Policy last November, Daniel Lew of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  and Douglas Larson of the University of California-Davis put a nearly $2,000 value on what a  non-resident angler will spend to chase a couple Alaska kings.

Among tourists, they reported, the “total willingness to pay for a trip with a two-fish Chinook salmon limit…in the Southcentral region is valued at $1945 (range $1553 to $2383).”

The value of the same two fish caught in the region’s commercial fishery and shipped out of state unnoticed? About $66.

State figures show the average price paid a commercial fishermen for a Cook Inlet king last year was $2.05 per pound. The average weight was 16 pounds, making the average king worth not quite $33. A barrel of economically depressed crude oil is at the moment trading about $20 higher.

The entire Cook Inlet commercial catch of 10,798 kings was in 2015 valued at only about $360,000, and most of that harvest was by-catch. There was only one small, directed Chinook fishery near the mouth of the Susitna River. The 40 people who fished it killed 1,560 kings.

At the time this Susitna commercial king fishery was established in 1985, Steve  Braund of the Northern Cook Inlet Setnetters Association told the Board of Fisheries that his group only wanted to catch kings surplus to sport-fishing demand.

“We’ll be the first to go if there are not enough fish,” he said. “We’re not just trying to get our foot in the door and grow.”

Thirty one years later the fishery remains although there are now not enough fish. A seasonal limit of five kings per year was imposed on Susitna drainage anglers in the mid-1990s. The seasonal limit there is now down to two-fish per year.

Given the sport-commercial value differential, the Southcentral Alaska economy could lose something on the order of $1,000 every time a king dies in a commercial gillnet at the mouth of the Susitna. But fishery economics are never anywhere near that simple.

Tourists bring the money

For one thing, the value of a sport-caught king changes substantially depending on who catches it.

A study done for the state in 2007 found the average Alaska resident angler willing to spend only about $90 to catch a king.  Experienced fishermen appeared to be something of an economic downer.  Less experienced anglers who hired the services of a guide were willing to pay up to $510, but that was still only about two-thirds of what nonresidents were willing to spend.

And whether resident anglers are guided or unguided is  something of a wash as Gunnar Knapp, the director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska, has pointed out.

“Sales of an industry to non-residents bring new money into the economy and increases the size of the economy,” Knapp observed. “Sales of an industry to residents don’t necessarily bring new money into the economy and don’t necessarily increase the size of the economy.”

Residents who can’t fish might spend their expendable income on bowling instead. Tourists are the money catch. Non-resident anglers  – no matter how much Alaskans might curse them for crowding state waters – come north planning to leave cash behind.

Along those lines, the good news for tourism around the state’s urban core is that a significant number of kings bound for tributaries of the Susitna north of Anchorage move through Cook Inlet before commercial fisheries begin in late June. The bad news is that the commercial harvests later in the year impact heavily on the Kenai River, once the most famous king salmon river in the world.

Unfortunately, a lot of shine has worn off the Kenai since the world-record, rod-and-reel king was landed there on May 17,1985. Over the course of the next decade, a couple anglers came close to matching the 97-pound, 4-0unce behemoth caught by the late Les Anderson, but it has now been a long, long time since a fish anywhere close to that size has been reported.

King salmon have been shrinking and fading for years almost everywhere across the north, though the change is most obvious on the Kenai. No one is sure of the exact cause, but the consensus of scientists is pointing to poor ocean survival.

Why ocean survival is poor is unclear. Some blame warm water. Other suggest kings are losing the competition with hundreds of millions of hatchery fish and other wild salmon from fisheries now managed for maximum abundance. The problem could be both or neither or something altogether different.

Whatever the case, the Kenai has taken a big hit.

Fisheries managers have done what they can on the freshwater end to try to fix the problem. The Kenai early  king run – the run that produced Anderson’s big fish – has been closed to sport fishing since 2013.  Sport fishing on the late run has been sharply restricted.

Results have not been encouraging. King catches were in the range of 30,000 to 40,000 in the late 1980s with another 34,000 to 35,000 kings escaping the fisheries to spawn. In ’87 commercial fishermen caught 25,000 kings; anglers 12,000. The numbers flipped a bit the next year with a sport catch of 18,000 and another 15,000 taken in the commercial fishery.

Times were good then  and not so bad on into the 1990s. Since the start of the new millennium, it’s been pretty much downhill.

The total return of late-run kings lat year – about 7,800 killed in the commercial fishery, 4,100 in the sport fishery and the 22,600 escaping to spawn – was less than the 1987 catch which also produced an escapement more than 10,000 fish greater than that of 2015.

The faltering Kenai returns have brought bycatch issues to the fore. A lot of Kenai kings die as bycatch in setnets on the east side of Cook Inlet near the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.

Federal management better?

Alaskans unhappy with this king-salmon harvest last year pushed for a ballot proposition to ban setnets in non-subsistence fisheries. The state Supreme Court refused to allow the initiative on the ballot, contending it would unfairly limit the authority of the Legislature and the Alaska Board of Fisheries to allocate salmon between competing user groups.

The board is set to wrestle with Cook Inlet salmon allocation again next year. It has been doing this for decades now with no real resolution. Some of the east side setnetters and at least one of their media propagandists argue their king harvest isn’t even bycatch because the netters are allowed to sell it.

Most setnetters, however, admit they are targeting plentiful sockeye, not struggling kings, and that is the definition of bycatch. The real problem is what to do about situation. Efforts to change how the fishery is prosecuted to try to reduce the bycatch have always run into opposition.

Federal officials have a simple solution for trawl fisheries in the fisheries conservation zone from three to 200 miles off the Alaska coast. They have been aggressive in imposing quotas in an effort to maximize fisheries value by shifting both chinook and halibut catches from low-value trawls to higher value harvests in hook-and-line fisheries, be they longlines for halibut or trolling for king salmon.

The state of Alaska has been far less forceful in dealing with bycatch problems.

“The base (by catch) rate is calculated as a three week rolling average; a minimum value, or floor, is established at 3.5 Chinook per 100 (metric) tons of pollock catch,” Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-sea Processors Association, told the state House’s Special Committee on Fisheries on 2013.

The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council has taken considerable heat for allowing too much king salmon bycatch, but its standard seems extreme when compared to the non-targeted catch the state of Alaska allows in the Inlet.

The Cook Inlet harvest of approximately 15.1 million pounds of sockeye salmon last summer works out to about 6,850 metric tons. A limit of 3.5 Chinook per 100 tons would cap the acceptable Inlet harvest at about 240 kings.

Not even the staunchest advocates of the setnet ban ever pushed for a number that low.

3 replies »

  1. Fresh market prices for Alaska King salmon are ~ $30/lb, however it would be unfair to claim that every king salmon not harvested in commercial nets is a loss of $30/lb. It would also be unfair to value our sport fishery using the $20 or $30 someone like myself might spend for an opportunity to fish for kings on peninsula rivers. Tourism dollars are a large part of Southcentral’s economy, but suggesting that commercial and resident sport fisheries are unimportant or should somehow be curtailed/eliminated to support growth in a nonresident fishery is a reckless concept and does not bode well for the best interests of Alaskans.

    While they’ve pointed out your continued use of false and misleading terminology, harvest statistics, and economic valuations, I’ve not read or heard commercial media propagandists suggesting that sport fishing is not a valuable part of our economy or that sportfishing opportunity should be minimized or eliminated to support more commercial harvest. I have seen them suggest that all user groups are important, and that commercial gillnets have been legally sustainably harvesting the healthier king stocks in cook inlet for over a century. They’ve also pointed out that there is overwhelming evidence to show that gillnets’ selective harvest of smaller kings is complementary to the inriver selective harvests of larger kings, and that the diversity of harvest and user groups helps protect from overly selective harvest of one stock, sex, or age group. To suggest that the local commercial harvest and sale of highly valuable Cook Inlet king salmon is similar to millions of pounds of killed and discarded trawl bycatch is offensive to say the least.

    Diversity – it’s good for the fish and the economy. And learning how to share makes us better people.

  2. Commercial set net fishing for kings in Northern District is still not open on the West side of the mouth of the Big Su and it has been like this for many years ( 10?). From the mouth of the Susitna all the way down the West side of the inlet to the Wood chip dock past Tyonek is closed to commercial set net fishing for Kings.
    It is only on the Little Susitna side of the mouth that it is open.

  3. I let some people stay in my house in Homer when I left for six weeks once. They were from California, I met them a week before I left and they were there to fish for halibut from the nice 28 or so long boat they hauled up. When I got back the guy told me that they had shipped will over a thousand pounds of frozen fillets home.

    They left the house clean and with a one pound package of halibut in my freezer. I think they probably forgot it.

    There is money to be made in fish here but recent returns of Copper River Red salmon indicate that they may be getting smaller. If they get too small people will stay home.


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