Amidst stay at home orders and a 14-day mandatory quarantine for travelers coming to Alaska, Alaska’s charter fleet, of over a thousand vessels, are preparing for an uncertain fishing season.
Alaska’s sportfishing tourism business is a major economic driver for small Alaska coastal communities. In a recent economic study done by NOAA Fisheries, based on 2015 data, the Alaska’s charter sector contributed to over $180 million to Alaska’s economy and $330 million to the U.S. economy.
Alaska’s charter fleet has seen ups and downs over its history, some due to changes in fisheries regulations and some due to just ups and downs in the nation’s economy. More recently the charter sector has seen a growth in active vessels in the fishery, which is probably due to a good economy and increased tourism. This trend may be facing a sudden cliff this year if businesses can’t open on time because of the coronavirus, or Covid-19, pandemic.
The million-dollar question (literally) is when will Alaska be open for business? A 14-day mandatory quarantine for travelers to Alaska is a non-starter for the charter sector and so is social-distancing, an almost impossible situation on small six-pack charter boats.
Even with these unknowns, lodges and single boat operators are gearing up for the season and preparing the best they can. A recent Alaska Charter Association poll showed more than 90 percent of respondents still hope to open this summer if possible.
Dennis Meier of Tanaku Lodge, Southeast Alaska, is planning on opening as soon as travel restrictions are lifted. Most lodges open in May and run until September. He is currently drafting a Covid-19 Operations Manual, which he plans to share with other lodges in the area.
It includes sanitation procedures for his lodge and sportfishing vessels, health checks of his employees, and social distancing guidelines if and when possible. He even purchased an anti-static disinfectant sprayer, the type used on commercial aircrafts to use at his facility.
Capt. Jimmy Akana of Seward is typical of Southcentral operators who need to be open to pay their bills: “Even a month’s worth of business will help me pay my bills. I don’t want to depend on the government handouts, who knows if and when they will come.”
Capt. Daniel Donnich, a single boat charter operator out of Homer, who normally fishes year-round, is currently unable to take charters due to the recent mandates that close all but essential businesses. Over recent years, as fishing regulations have become more restrictive for guided anglers, his clientele base has shifted from local residents to out of state anglers. He has put his clientele on hold until business and travel restrictions are lifted.
Theresa Weiser, owner of Wild Strawberry Lodge in Sitka, takes calls daily as cancellations roll in due to the coronavirus pandemic and hopes her clientele base of 28 years will decide to move their reservations to next year. Some do and some don’t. She has tried to roll over her May reservations to June in hopes things will get back to normal by then.
A Southeast Alaska lodge owner for 38 years, I am on the other side of the spectrum.
I decided to close for the season after riding the emotional roller coaster from day to day not knowing when it will be safe for our guests to travel or even if it was, how many of my guests would still have a fear of travel, as well as their willingness to spend money during this time of economic uncertainty.
Unfortunately, those that depend on cruise ship business, have all but written off their season. The federal government’s cruise ship “No Sail Orders” have recently been modified which will probably prevent cruise ships from coming to Alaska beyond the originally announced July 1 date.
The sooner the charter sector can plan on a fishing season, even if abbreviated, the better. Lodge operations need time to ramp up to do business. Hiring staff, getting boats and facilities ready and getting supplies out to remote locations are challenging in a normal season.
This year, there will be additional challenges. Commitments to seasonal staff as to when and if they will be hired has stressed relationships. Availability of supplies may be an issue; will there be enough food supplies, sanitation agents, face masks if required, toilet paper? With local air service providers going out of business, will remote lodges be able to get their clients out to their facilities?
The decision to lessen the damage to Alaska’s economy brought on by the coronavirus and to open businesses as soon as possible versus the potential of jeopardizing people’s health if done too early, will have to be made soon.
Prior to this, the governor should work closely with the charter sector to outline a management plan for reopening the charter fishery when appropriate. The COVID-19 peak and decline projections have healthcare back to normal around the end of May.
Will the governor open businesses shortly thereafter? What will be the metrics used to make such a decision? Does this mean no more deaths due to COVID-19 for a period of time or no one gets sick with COVID-19 during this time? The governor will probably be the first to weigh in by lifting travel restrictions and other mandates.
Each lodge and charter business will have to make their own health risk and operating cost assessments to determine whether it’s worth opening for the remainder of the season or better just to dry dock their boats.
Richard Yamada is the president of the Alaska Charter Association, a non-profit statewide charter organization. He is one of three U.S. Commissioners on the International Pacific Halibut Commission, is on NOAA’s Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee which advises the Secretary of Commerce on all marine matters, and is a board member of NACO, the National Association of Charterboat Operators.