Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 4:39 PM on Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Effects of poor king runs trickle down to entire economy of Kenai Peninsula


Local businesses are feeling the impact of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's emergency orders limiting sport fishing for king salmon in salt and fresh water on the lower Cook Inlet and the Kenai Peninsula. Commercial fishermen and related businesses also have been affected by a closure of eastern Cook Inlet setnet fishing in the Kasilof section of the upper subdistrict of the Upper Cook Inlet. Poor king salmon returns have hit Alaska statewide, causing closures or limits in all king salmon fisheries, including subsistence.

"We have members calling to say they've lost 50 percent of their business in the last couple of weeks," said Shanon Hamrick, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council in Soldotna. "I hate to say Homer's going to get a boost from it, but people will definitely defer to halibut if the rivers are closing."

That might prove a short-term solution for travelers, but Hamrick predicts there also will be a long-term impact reaching beyond fishing- related businesses.

"When you plan a $10,000 trip and you planned it all around fishing and something like this happens, how likely are you to book a trip like that again? People don't just come to do river fishing," said Hamrick.

Monte Davis, executive director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce, said he was "absolutely certain" the current restrictions on salmon fishing are affecting the southern peninsula.

"There are a certain number of people who have driven here or flown in and rented motorhomes who came because of world-famous salmon fishing and they'll go away disappointed," said Davis.

Like Hamrick, Davis said all the impacts of reduced opportunities for king salmon fishing won't be felt immediately.

"You never get a chance to make a second first impression, so this kind of thing hurts us as much or more down the road as it does right now, right here," said Davis. "Luckily, since we are so well known for halibut, it's not killing us like Soldotna."

The closures limit fishing in near-shore saltwater, but not farther out. Homer charter captains targeting feeder king salmon also could get benefit from the other king salmon closures.

Fishing guide Jim Lavrakas of Skookum Charters said he's still catching feeder kings. Lavrakas deliberately has avoided near shore river areas — now limited to catch-and-release anyway.

"It's not hot out there," he said of feeder kings.

Ocean fishermen are seeing feeder kings near Glacier Spit and Chugachik Island at the head of Kachemak Bay. Some fishermen are fishing in the lower inlet toward Chrome Bay.

"I'm one of the lucky who has a boat and can go out fishing when I want to," Lavrakas said. "Those folks who depend on river fishing, that's really hit them."

Dave Kaffke of Ninilchik wore three different hats when he spoke of the impacts of ADF&G's emergency orders limiting king salmon fishing. Kaffke owns and operates Spinner Dave's Sportfishing, offering trolling for king salmon and fishing for halibut; he and his wife, Sue, own Bluff House, a bed and breakfast; and Kaffke is president of the Ninilchik Chamber of Commerce.

"(Ninilchik) only has a couple of little gift shops, two processing places, a few bed and breakfasts and a few businesses," he said. "When something like this hits, it hits us hard. ... Ultimately, everybody is going to lose some business out if it."

Cook Inlet driftnet fishermen began their commercial season on Monday as planned, while ADF&G's emergency orders forced setnet fishermen in the Kasilof Section to keep their nets out of the water. According to the order, the poor performance of the early run of Kenai River king salmon stocks make it appear likely the late run also would be poor, requiring "conservative management."

Sockeye or red salmon runs on the Kasilof River also have been down compared to the last 10 years, said Pat Shields, ADF&G area management biologist, Soldotna. According to an emergency order on Wednesday, the sockeye salmon passage estimate as of midnight Tuesday was 28,000 fish. The optimum escapement goal for the Kasilof section is 160,000 to 190,000 salmon. The department manages the set-gillnet fishery to meet escapement goals of sockeye salmon and late-run king salmon.

"At this point, sockeye salmon are not requiring harvest to put us in the escapement curve where we want to be at the end of the year," Shields said. "This can all change in a hurry, and often does."

Driftnet fisherman John McCombs of Ninilchik argues that the decision was not based on conservation.

"The ridiculous thing is that nobody knows what the late run of king salmon is going to be. They're keeping guys on the beach so fish can get by for the Kenai Classic. There are definitely political machinations in the works," said McCombs, referring to the Kenai River Classic, an annual three-day invitational fishing event sponsored by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association that will be held this year on July 5-7. In its 15-year history, the Kenai River Classic has raised more than $12 million for habitat restoration projects, fisheries education, research and management, according to information on the Kenai River Classic website.

Biologists say the poor king salmon runs are a statewide problem not caused by specific issues on rivers.

"The larger scale patterns we're seeing are related to conditions in the ocean, primarily the Pacific Decadal Oscillation," said Mark Willette, an ADF&G research biologist. "That's the primary explanation you'll hear."

Young king salmon feed far offshore in oceans, primarily on other fish or marine animals. Kings remain in the sea longer, from four to five years, before returning. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or PDO, a well-documented pattern of cold and warm periods in the Pacific Ocean, affects Alaska and Northwest Pacific king salmon populations differently. The PDO is now in a cold cycle, good for Washington and Oregon but bad for Alaska. The Pacific had a strongly negative, or cold, period in 2008. The ocean has remained cold since then.

This is the first time Dan Leman, a life-long Ninilchik resident and setnet fisherman, recalls the season's first opening being closed by emergency order.

"This is huge for us," said Leman. "We are heavily invested financially. We started prepping for this weeks ago. The money's already been spent. We bought the gear, licenses, permits, did all the stuff we needed to do to get ready."

Lost fishing days mean lost fish, said Leman.

"It's my experience that fish, once they're by you, don't turn around and say they'll give you another shot," he said, adding what this closure could mean for the remainder of the season is cause for concern. "There's not any real information coming out as to what to expect day by day, so that makes us a little bit nervous. How long is this going to drag on?"

As far as allocating who gets fish and how many fish they get, Leman said, "There's the mentality of trying to guarantee everybody a fish, whether you're setnetters, drifters, sports fishermen or fishing on a river. There's just no way you can do that. We're all in it for different reasons, but we're all in it to try to catch a fish."

With a family fishing history that dates back several generations, Leman isn't ready to quit, in spite of the frustrations and uncertainty.

"It's fishing. It's what we do. There are no guarantees. Once it's in your blood, you do it," said Leman.

Brent Johnson of Kasilof has been setnet fishing commercially on Cook Inlet for 47 years. Like McCombs, Johnson believes there are factors other than conservation involved in the emergency closure.

"There was a weak early run of kings throughout Cook Inlet and the fear there will be a weak late run. ... So, the sport fishing association and the powers that be think the best way to solve the problem is for setnetters not to fish," said Johnson. "That kind of hurts right in the gut. If we lose the early part of the season, that bodes rather poorly for us."

Like Leman, Johnson isn't ready to give up.

"We're fishermen," he said. "Fishermen are eternal hopers. ... All we can do is hope."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com. McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.