Thirty-six years ago today in a warm and sunny May of the sort better in Alaska than anywhere in the world, the state’s largest city was abuzz with the news of a king salmon the size of a 10-year-old child pulled from the murky waters of the Kenai River.
Anchorage then was a much different place than it is now. The city was only about two-thirds the size; the proportion of fishermen was significantly higher; and one of the nation’s last great newspaper wars was raging between the long-dominant Anchorage Times and the upstart Anchorage Daily News.
It was a time when newspapers mattered, and on almost every corner in Anchorage, there seemed to be a newspaper box, something so rare these days that some younger readers might not recognize these relics from the past.
The News had, at the time, just edged ahead of the Times in circulation and was on its way to winning the war. And on this day back then, the morning’s newspapers with a photo of 68-year-old Les Anderson straining to hold a pig of a fish sold out in every one of the Daily News’ boxes.
This was no mean feat given that at the time almost every citizen of the city was a newspaper subscriber, and a fair number subscribed to both the staunchly conservative, pro-development Times and the more moderate and greener News.
One could only surmise most of the newspapers in those boxes were scooped up by the tourists, many of whom in those years came north in the early season to fish Kenai kings.
Anderson’s fish stirred passions in all of them. The fish would prove to be a world record. Anderson would become semi-famous and remain so until his death in 2003.
For more than a decade after the catch, the world-record would likewise power a booming, in-river, guided king fishery on the Kenai, and lead a small group of Alaskans to devote as much time as they could to besting Anderson’s catch with a much-dreamed-of-king of 100 pounds or more.
It was not to be; and now it looks like it will never be.
The days of large numbers of anglers heading for the Kenai in May and June are over. The biggest fish have almost disappeared, and the early run of which Anderson’s fish was a part has faded to a shadow of itself.
Commercial harvests of the fish ended long before the drop started, and the angler catch that once supported the boom in early-season guiding businesses is now so small the guides have largely disappeared.
A Kenai fishing season that started in mid-May back then doesn’t really get going until early June now when the sockeye salmon arrive at a fabled Kenai tributary, the Russian River.
Meanwhile, the decline in newspapers has been even greater than the decline in early run king salmon. In a city where the two newspapers once sold more than 100,000 papers and where the war-winning Daily News reached a circulation near 100,000 on its own, the number of papers sold now is reported to be about a fifth that number, though no one knows for sure how many sell.
Audited newspaper circulation numbers used to be available. Newspapers used them to pitch potential advertisers on the number of potential customers they could reach with a newspaper ad.
Most advertisers now are smart enough to recognize that more people get their news online than on paper, and thus newspaper advertising is not a great buy. Some still advertise, but it is unclear why.
The times have changed and changed radically, but it is fun sometimes to gaze back fondly on the old days.
Good old days
I wrote the Anderson fish story that led the Daily News on May 18, 1985 with a ton of help from colleague Ronnie Chappell, a first-rate reporter who then manned the newspaper’s Kenai bureau.
The Kenai bureau disappeared long ago as did Chappell, who left his mark in Alaska by helping to write the stories that laid the groundwork for the eventual creation of the Kenai River Special Management Area that has done much to help preserve one of the state’s natural treasures.
A hard-working, fair-minded and prolific reporter, Chappell figured out journalism was a dead end when one of his bosses refused him a raise with the observation that productivity was not a standard by which the Daily News judged performance.
The newspaper was then at the peak of being what it considered a publication for “writers,” not mere reporters, and it was apparently adjudged that no matter how prolific Chappell might be he didn’t qualify as a great writer.
He quit and went to work doing public relations for ARCO, an oil company bought out by BP in 2000. Afterward, Chappell became BP’s voice in Alaska before leaving for London and then Houston as he climbed the company’s corporate ladder.
By the time he finally quit, he was BP America’s vice-president for press and communications. He and his wife, Susan, retired to Williamsburg, Va., but his daughter, who grew up on the Kenai, stayed in-country to build a career in tourism marketing, a field with a lot better future than journalism.
She left Kenai, got married and settled in Anchorage when a lot was changing in the state. The rapidly growing town in which she grew up kept growing, and the wide spot along the Sterling Highway to the south – a community called Soldotna – exploded.
Home to fewer than 2,500 people in 1980, it nearly doubled in size and now boasts the summer-busiest Fred Meyer in the state, possibly in the country, serving not just the seasonal mob of tourists but the whole of the western Kenai Peninsula.
The Freddie’s superstore, where the parking lot clogs with recreational vehicles in the summer, is just up the road from the auto dealership Anderson owned up until his death at age 84.
Both are only blocks from the gray-green, glacially fed Kenai River that has changed the least of anything in the nearly four decades since Anderson landed his 97-pound, four-ounce record catch that still stirs emotions.
There has been a long-running debate about whether the fish would have reached the 100-pound mark if Anderson had weighed the salmon immediately after he caught it instead of dehydrating it by hauling it around town in the back of his pickup for several hours on a warm day.
One hundred was at the time a sort of magic number.
For years after Anderson’s catch, there were plenty of people confident the Kenai would eventually yield a 100-pound king, given that Anderson’s salmon had been part of the early run that is traditionally made up of salmon smaller than those that come in the late run in July.
The confidence faded when the fish started shrinking. Nobody talks about expectations of a 100-pound king these days.
Where once anglers released 60- and 70-pound kings hoping to catch a bigger salmon, they are now surprised to see a fish even approaching these sizes.
The biggest king caught in the last decade weighed 71.1 pounds. Most middle-age fisheries biologists doubt the Kenai will see the biggest of the big fish again, at least in their lifetimes.
Thinking the shrinking size of the kings might be due to anglers removing too many of the biggest fish from the spawning population over the years, the Alaska Board of Fisheries in 2003 wrote a regulation to protect kings between 46 and 55 inches, the fish thought most likely to harbor the genes for monster size.
Any of those fish hooked by an angler were to be released unharmed. The Board did leave anglers with an opportunity to land a fish bigger than 55 inches in case someone hooked into a new world record.
The Board also required all fish over 55 inches be registered with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to help track their harvest. Very few of those fish showed up in the books.
There was but one in the last decade, that previously mentioned 71.1 pounder. It measured 55.5 inches.
If Anderson – an avid Kenai angler for decades – were alive today, it’s hard to know what would shock him more, the shrunken size of the kings or the improvements made to the river in hopes of bringing back the big monsters.
The latter has gotten better even as the former has grown worse.
Riverbanks once beaten bare by the boots of anglers flocking to the water to fish have been protected and revegetated. Light-penetrating fishing platforms have been built in places to allow people to fish from above lush green vegetation protecting riverbanks along which king (Chinook) and coho salmon smolt can be seen feeding.
In most ways, the river is in better shape today than it was in Anderson’s day when over-powered jet boats roared up and down its course with their wakes hammering away at the riverbanks and anglers trampled anything that got in their way to get at the fish.
But the ocean, for whatever reason, has not been as friendly to the big fish. That is a problem not unique to the Kenai.
A team of scientists from the University of California, the University of Alaska, Canada’s McGill and Simon Fraser universities, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and GKV & Sons, an independent consultancy, have documented a steady, four-decade-long decline in the size of Chinook along with similar, but fluctuating downward trends in coho and sockeye salmon.
They have suggested Alaska’s bounty of pink salmon, which drove state harvests to record numbers in the 2010s, could be to blame. Boosted by hatchery returns, Alaska commercial fishermen now regularly catch 100 million or more pinks per season.
In their peer-reviewed study documenting the declines in size of Chinook, coho and sockeye, the researchers wrote that ” intriguingly, the shared acceleration of size declines post-2000 occurred during a period of unusually high (though variable) pink salmon abundance in Alaska, suggesting high pink salmon abundances could be accelerating or exacerbating size declines. Our results provide further evidence that wild and hatchery-enhanced pink salmon abundance in the North Pacific has reached such high levels that they appear to be exerting an influence on ecosystem structure and function.”
The study was published in Nature Communications in August. Another peer-reviewed study, this one published in Fish and Fisheries later in 2020, also found a huge decline in numbers of Chinook in the North Pacific.
David Welch and colleagues at Kintama Research Services in British Columbia documented a 65 percent, Pacific Coast-wide decline in the survival of Chinook at sea.
Their study was limited to returns to streams in Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and the Alaska Panhandle, but there is no reason to believe the trend doesn’t extend to the Kenai and around the Gulf of Alaska.
The streams north of the Panhandle were left out of the study only because of a lack of quality data, according to Welch. The 123 watersheds in the study had data from tagged fish.
And all that data pointed at survival problems in the ocean whether the salmon spawned in rivers running through the wilds of Alaska or the farmlands of Washington and Oregon.
“The abundance of salmon in the North Pacific has reached record levels,” the Kintama researchers wrote. “However, most of the increase is in the two lowest valued species (pinks and chums) in far northern regions, at least in part due to ocean ranching.
“In contrast, essentially all west coast North American Chinook populations including Alaska are now performing poorly with dramatically reduced productivity.”
The study has been highly controversial in that it to some degree challenges the long-held belief that hydroelectric dams are solely to blame for depressed runs of Chinook to the Columbia River, where – as in Alaska – the biggest of the salmon keep getting smaller.
CORRECTION: This is a revised version of an earlier story. It was edited to clarify the Kintama study documented a decline in Chinook survival.