Kenai and Ketchikan might be more than a thousand miles apart, but charter fishing operators are finding a stronger tie than the map might indicate.
When a river in one place in Alaska closes, guides throughout the state feel the hit.
“Bad news anywhere in the state translates to a dropoff everywhere,” said Heath Hilyard, executive director of Southeast Alaska Guides Organization.
And that’s bad news for the state economy, said Ricky Gease from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
Guided fishing trips contributed about $641 million to various sectors of the Alaskan economy in 2007, according to a study produced by Southwick Associates for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Nonresident anglers spent $652.5 million in 2007.
According to Gease, angling activity contributed about 40 percent of the value of the tourism industry that year.
This summer, both the early and late king Salmon runs on the Kenai River were closed. That news hurt guides on the Kenai and in Southeast Alaska alike.
“I don’t know how many clients ended up actually canceling,” Hilyard said. “I know that I heard from operators that they were fielding phone calls from clients who had yet to come who were saying they were thinking about canceling.”
Now charter operators want to make sure that in future summers, anglers are clear on all their fishing options, and how the season is going around the state — not just where they can’t fish.
Hilyard is working with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on getting data more easily throughout the season. But numbers aren’t the only solution, he said.
“We have to really do a better job of telling the story throughout the season and before the season to those people to say, ‘look, just because you hear about a closure on the Kenai River doesn’t mean it’s in anyway going to affect your fishing experience in Sitka,’” Hilyard said.
In Southeast, the problem stemmed in large part, he said, from a mid-summer Wall Street Journal article about king Salmon closures.
“Certain clients saw that article and started talking to operators, saying, ‘well, you know, maybe I’m not going to come, maybe I’m going to cancel,’” Hilyard said.
Gease said the king closures definitely hurt business on the Kenai. But some anglers transitioned to other rivers and fish in Southcentral. And the Kenai Peninsula netted a few anglers when Anchorage and the Mat-Su were closed to silver fishing, he said.
Despite those increases, Gease said the king closures had the largest impact on the economy locally, and it wasn’t a positive one.
“I know some guides had lost up to half their bookings this summer,” Gease said.
But the Kenai Peninsula did see some additional fishing clients when there are other closures. One example of that, Gease said, is when the Mat-Su was closed to silver fishing, some people traveled to Kenai or Homer or Seward. Those anglers often returned home with pinks, too, he said.
There are fewer destination-changes across the Gulf of Alaska on the Panhandle, however.
Last year, Southeast operators were concerned that business would migrate to Southcentral because of new halibut charter rules, Hilyard said.
Under the 2011 halibut rules, charter customers in Area 2C — or Southeast Alaska — could keep one fish 37 inches or smaller. The bag limits in Area 3A, or Southcentral, allowed anglers to keep two fish of any size.
This year, the charter bag limit in Southeast was relaxed to allow retention of one fish per day, either up to 45 inches or greater than 68 inches. A measure known as a “reverse slot limit,” halibut between 45 inches and 68 inches are required to be gently returned to the water.
A few clients moved from Southeast to Kodiak in 2011, but for the most part operators didn’t see that sort of transition, Hilyard said.
In Southcentral, about half the clients are Alaskans and half are from Outside. Alaskans, particularly on the road system, can move their trips around. But the Outside clients are less likely to change their destination, as about 90 percent of the customers in Southeast are visitors.
While it might be hard to predict or prevent the closures in many cases, Hilyard said this fall, he’s working on a way to at least help guides with concrete evidence for clients that fishing in their region was still strong.
“Not just hey we think that it’s pretty good,” Hilyard said. “We need to be able to say, ‘Alaska Department of Fish and Game is saying x.’”
Hilyard said he’s working with ADFG on that effort.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game mostly uses logbook information to track fishing. That information is only collected periodically and has to be entered into the system, there’s no instant data source. The logbooks are accurate, and a change charter operators were happy to see enacted, Hilyard said. But they’ve had some unintended consequences.
“It has created a problem in terms of collection and analysis and reporting in terms of timeliness,” Hilyard said.
This summer, when Hilyard wanted to quantify how the season was going, it took three to four weeks to get very rough estimates, he said.
Hilyard said operators would like to see more frequent collection of the logbook information. He is talking to the department about the possibility of real-time data reporting, maybe even electronically so that the data can be turned around more quickly.
Hilyard said the department has the same desire for more frequent data collection; it’s mostly just a matter of funding. A smartphone app is in the works that would allow for electronic data transmission, he said.
“The department can then turn those numbers more quickly,” Hilyard said.
Marketing is also part of the answer.
“We can all peacefully coexist and enjoy prosperous fishing,” Hilyard said. “We all want to kinda say hey look, don’t mark Alaska off your calendar just because you heard there’s a closure.”
Guides in Southeast have already been successfully upping their marketing efforts, Hilyard said. As a rough estimate, Hilyard said bookings were up about 10 percent overall in Southeast compared to 2011.
“That experience is different from operator to operator, port to port,” he said.
The increase was largely the result of marketing and ingenuity, he said.
Early in the season, one operator on Prince of Wales had bookings up 20 percent to 25 percent compared to 2011.
“That’s because they had really changed their internet marketing and social media strategies preseason and really worked on that a lot more heavily so their marketing tactics increased their bookings,” Hilyard said.
Another Prince of Wales operator had a sizable increase as well — about 30 percent to 40 percent. In his case, the upswing was the result of an expanded season and additional offerings beyond fishing such as chartered bear hunting.
“He tries to be kind of a turnkey full solution resort for families,” Hilyard said. “So hey, the wife shows up, she doesn’t want to fish at all, well we’re going to have guided nature hikes and crafts and you know, different stuff like that.”
There are still a few operators who have the same experience, same clientele, as they have for decades. Hilyard spent time with a Sitka guide who took clients out this summer that had been coming back, year after year, for 15 or 20 years.
“These guys are really serious fishermen,” Hilyard said.
Gease said that the picture on the Kenai wasn’t as positive as in Southeast. Without logbook data, he couldn’t say exactly how bookings had fared. But from 2008 to 2011 they decreased by about a third. He attributed that to the economic downturn, and the continuing low king returns. This summer’s closures likely resulted in another decrease.
“We’re just seeing the front end of the effects of the closure that we had this year,” Gease said.
In the past, it’s taken about five years for bookings to recover after a summer with closures, Gease said.
Complicating future bookings is the uncertainty introduced in the closures. It’s possible that early run king Salmon will be designated a stock of concern — there is a proposal in for the Board of Fisheries to consider such a move in October — which could change management. Exactly how the changes will play out is unknown, so guides don’t know exactly what sort of experience to market to potential clients.
“That closure brings a lot of uncertainty into the business and inevitably that uncertainty will lead to decreased bookings until it becomes a more stable fishery once again,” Gease said.