It was a tough year for Dave Blackley.
He guided dipnet fishing trips, sockeye and trout fishing trips, anything he could do to accommodate clients who wanted to catch king salmon.
He still lost a third of his bookings.
While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much money a king salmon fisherman spends in local bait and tackle shops, at lodges, hiring guides or buying groceries and fuel, local business owners said the loss of tourism money was substantial and painful.
The step-down system that eventually led to the fishery’s closure began on the first day of the season when sport fishermen started with no-bait. Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials issued another emergency order restricting the king fishery to catch-and-release and trophy king retention a week later.
On July 19, with about two weeks left in the season, the river was closed to fishing for kings.
At the time, Fish and Game area biologists said their projections showed a run that could be the lowest on record.
While those projections have since changed, due to an unexpected push of late-run kings in August, the economic impact of a king fishery closure has been felt throughout the commercial and sport fishing industries.
For Steven Anderson, it was $50,000.
“How much of that money would have gotten spent locally? The majority would go to guides, there’s lunches, fishing licenses, fish shipping boxes, welcome gifts that we supply, all that stuff,” said, Anderson, owner of the Soldotna Bed and Breakfast lodge. “That’s probably about $40,000 out of that $50,000. That’s what I can measure that I know we lost. But what about stuff that I can’t measure that we’ll never know because those people never came?”
Anderson said he also wouldn’t be doing any renovations this year.
“I was going to buck the trend and expand my property but I can’t do that. I’m not going to spend any money. I was considering spending about $200,000 in improvements this winter, I canned all that.”
Blackley, who runs Caribou Run Alaska Fishing Adventures with his wife, said he was in a better position than some other guides because he doesn’t live entirely on the money he makes through guiding.
“We thought we would be able to crunch the numbers, we thought we would be able to make enough from guiding and lodging to be able to not have another job,” he said. “We found out that it wasn’t as easy as it looks.”
In an effort to keep from hemorrhaging clients when the king fishery closure was announced, Blackley said he talked people into sport fishing for sockeye instead.
“It’s like, you know, you’re coming and this is what we can do. You know, it’s either that or we’ve got to give you your money back and most people want to go fishing,” Blackley said. “You kind of just hope that they’ll stick with you.”
According to the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, sales tax data indicates area guides made close to a million dollars in taxable sales in the third and fourth quarters of 2010. Those quarters see the most local tourism and tourist revenue, said KPTMC Executive Director Shanon Hamrick.
That revenue, while a boon for the area, can be a double edged sword when it dies down, she said.
“When tourism takes a hit, everyone feels an impact,” Hamrick said.
Greg Brush, owner of EZ Limit Guide Service, is immediately defensive when people use the phrase “Kenai River closure” to describe this year’s king fishing season.
“We haven’t been shut down,” he said. “There hasn’t been a river closure. There was a closure to king salmon fishing in July. The river is open and we can sockeye fish, we can trout fish.”
The perception difference between a king closure and a river closure can have a severe economic impact, he said.
While he lost a few clients, Brush said people who had already bought their plane tickets usually came anyway and he arranged other types of fishing for them.
“Where it really hurts is ... people from Anchorage and Wasilla didn’t even come down,” he said. “As word gets out and people are worried about the health of the king fishery and future restrictions, then you wonder what’s going to happen down the road.”
Anderson said his lodge has been taking phone calls all season from people who hear the Kenai River is closed.
“They hear the Kenai River is closed and they figure it’s for the next 10 years,” he said. “It’s only through the month of July, they don’t know that. People who are calling us already have reservations in August and September. Then I think about people who don’t call, who don’t come, don’t consider coming because they’ve heard the Kenai River is closed.”
The loss in revenue from tourists who decide to go elsewhere is immeasurable.
“An area like ours does have a reputation and people come here to fish,” Hamrick said. “When it has closures, it affects people’s decisions to come here.”
When the marketing council goes to trade shows, Hamrick said educating fishermen is part of the job.
“They’re aware of some of our issues but they’re not necessarily getting all of the facts,” she said. “For instance with the halibut fishery there are a lot of people nationwide who believe that the Cook Inlet is a one fish fishery because that’s how it is (elsewhere).”
Anderson said people are starting to notice a trend of king restrictions and he’s not sure if offering other fishing or activity options will entice them to continue vacationing in the area.
“People are getting cold feet. This is not the first time this has happened, it happened last year. Most people in the know, already know in June its primarily catch and release for kings. June is a very, very hard sell. Its only going to get harder. This July is going to become a harder sell.”
A growing problem
Custom Seafood Processors owner Lisa Hanson was not surprised when the king fishery closed.
“This isn’t something that happened overnight. This has been in gradual decline for the last five to eight years,” she said. “To say, ‘Oh my this is a surprise’ is not right. We’ve over fished the king fishery for years.”
Hanson estimated that 95 percent of her business came from processing sport-caught fish. However the company also processes game and buys and prepares commercial fish.
Through 17 years, Hanson has seen ups and downs, and a steady income is hard to find with such a fluctuating market and resource.
She said the last few years of strong sockeye runs are a good example of a boom cycle for fish, one she has used to supplant the income lost from declining revenue for king processing.
“You don’t plan your finances on a boom year and then have a feeling of entitlement, like, ‘I deserve this all the time,” this is a give-and-take thing; it’s a resource and it fluctuates,” she said.
For Custom Seafoods, which charges by the pound, the loss of king revenue comes down to weight. Sockeye usually weigh about six pounds while kings are the largest of all the Pacific salmon and typically weigh about 36 pounds, according to Fish and Game.
“It is an absolute loss. Ten years ago we used to catch 60-80 pound kings all day long, I mean dozens,” Hanson said. “Now it’s a rare thing even before the closures and whatnot. So our big fish are in absolute peril.”
While she does feel the loss to her business, Hanson said she’s lucky that she can diversify and appeal to sport fishermen who target other kinds of fish.
“I am one of the fortunate people and I consider myself blessed beyond measure because I have the red season run and the halibut fishery with local people and tourists getting those two fish that are basically the bread and butter of my business right now,” Hanson said. “I’m able to absorb the loss of the kings much more successfully than some of the guides or the bed and breakfasts.”
What happens next
Fish and Game estimates more than a quarter of the run has entered the river since the season closed July 31. Based on passage estimates, there may be enough kings in the river to provide for an adequate spawning escapement.
According to the department, between 10-16 percent of the late run of king salmon pass its sonar site in August so the run-timing is later that usual.
Other fisheries may have been able to soften the economic blow as well.
Hamrick said she’d heard anecdotal evidence of significant economic boosts in the halibut fishery.
“I’m very curious to see what the sales tax come back as this summer and how they compare to the previous year,” she said. “While there was some people who cancelled their trips, most people still came and did different activities. That doesn’t help at all the guides on the Kenai River, but it might not be as big of an impact on the Peninsula as a whole in regards to sales tax.”
Hanson added a 1,500 foot freezer into her plant after she was so swamped by last year’s banner sockeye salmon run. She also had to close her doors for a few days.
“If you can’t capture the income from that high volume — and it’s so very short then it’s gone — you missed the boat,” she said.
This year’s strong sockeye run again swamped her processors. But Hanson said with the new freezer she was able to run for a full 24 hours with a second crew to keep up with the demand.
“A few people looked at me like I was crazy with the kings closing down, but it was a big investment totally based on faith,” she said.
Hanson said she’d gladly give up any income she got from processing kings if it meant the fishery would stay healthy.
“If we don’t handle it well and we over fish an area it will go away,” she said. “We can mess things up that nature has provided and we can mess it up so badly that we ruin it.”
While the king run may prove healthier than expected, Brush said he would still change the way he runs his business.
He said he is only going to book catch-and-release king fishing trips next year.
“My clients will no longer be killing Kenai kings,” Brush said. “That’s one thing that a local can do is he can voluntarily release what king salmon he catches. That’s not something that everybody’s going to do but it’s a small step that we can do to educate others and conserve the resource.”