Kenai is shifting the emphasis of how it manages the roughly 20,000 personal-use dipnet fishermen who come to town from July 10–31 from merely keeping control of the chaos to making it profitable for the local economy.
One attempt to do so this year was a new smartphone application that Kenai’s government created to distribute information about both the fishery and the town.
The Dipnet Kenai app — “the largest undertaking” in this year’s fishery, according to Kenai Finance Director Terry Eubank in his summary of the 2017 dipnet season — had 8,474 downloads this year and 317,273 page views in July. Its live camera views of Kenai’s north and south beaches, city boat launch and river became the most-visited part of the Kenai website in July, with 60,000 visitors — enough that the city temporarily boosted its internet bandwidth for the month to keep up, said Kenai Information Technology Manager Dan Castimore, who said the city website normally recieves about 40,000 monthly visits.
“It’s the first time we used up all our internet as a city, running those cameras,” Castimore said.
The app also meant fewer calls to the city for information, Kenai Parks and Recreation Direction Bob Frates wrote in his department’s dipnet report. In addition to video, the app displays weather and tide information, a fee calculator, daily Alaska Department of Fish and Game Fish counts and an interactive map.
Developing the app — which Castimore and a consultant began in March — cost $16,049. Of that, $10,946 was spent on installing six new live-streaming cameras overlooking dipnet sites.
Creating the app on a limited budget and in time for the fishery opening required that the city used templates provided by a vendor, which limited their ability to customize it, Castimore wrote, noting particularly the map template “made it difficult to indicate areas where rules applied such as no vehicles or no parking.”
For the 2018 version of the app, Castimore said he planned to fix formatting issues and to automate its fish count display — this year, the app’s fish count had to be manually entered from numbers posted on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website — but not to make any great changes. Large upgrades would be expensive: in his report, Castimore estimated the cost of customizing the app to be around $20,000.
With the current vendor, Castimore wrote, “other advanced features such as tracking participant activities, providing location specific notices, and integration with the (parking fee collection) Point of Sale program aren’t possible…”
On the possibility of tracking participant activity, Castimore said “at this point, we haven’t gone anywhere other than the initial once-over glance at it.” The tracking could include using Bluetooth beacons to anonymously register the presence app-users who’ve given the necessary permissions in certain locations, he said.
“If we could tell how many times someone came and left the fishery, it could help us plan better for next year,” he said. “If we knew the average length of a stay that someone was on site, it could help us better plan the future.”
Though paying for an upgrade might require an appropriation from the Kenai City Council — by code, administrators can spend less than $15,000 without council approval — Castimore said Kenai administrators could make these changes without explicit council permission.
“But we’re not trying to make anybody angry, so if we’re going to do anything like that that’s going to get people’s attention, we’re not going to do it quietly,” Castimore said.
One of the most frequent requests in the 80 comments that dipnetters sent to the city through the app’s feedback form was that future versions include information on commercial fishery openings, closings and emergency orders. Castimore said the complexity and specificity of commercial fishery management would make it hard to include this information and the city has no plans to do so.
Encouraging dipnetters to explore local businesses was one objective of the smartphone app — particularly of its advertisements, which were displayed 65,833 times, according to Eubank’s dipnet report.
About 7 percent of this year’s dipnetters were from Kenai, while about half — 55 percent this year — usually come from Anchorage. Many arrive in town with the objective of filling their coolers with fish, bringing their supplies and entertainment with them. Kenai Chamber of Commerce President Johna Beech said that as far as making local purchases goes, dipnetters “are very much an all-inclusive group to themselves, with the exception of getting fuel and ice when they’re down here.” But she added that at least some are looking to do more than fish in Kenai.
“We get a lot of dipnetters through here at the visitor’s center — apparently we have the most amazing bathrooms in town — and one of the questions they always have is, ‘What is there to do?’” she said. “There’s families that come down and one or both of the parents are fishing and the kids want something to do. There’s potential to market to them, to pull them off the beaches, especially if the run’s slow and they’re waiting for fishing to pick up … There’s definitely potential. It’s just how to go about doing it.”
This year, the Kenai government solicited service industry businesses inside Kenai city limits to advertise in the app, Castimore said. The five local businesses and groups who bought app advertising this year were the Kenai McDonald’s, Everything Bagels, Caring for the Kenai, the Kenai Medicenter and the Beluga Lookout RV Park.
Next year the Kenai Chamber of Commerce will be soliciting advertisers for the app. Beech said the group plans to start seeking advertisers in January. The revenue will go primarily to the cost of running the app, Castimore said, with any excess being split between the Chamber and Kenai’s dipnet fund.
“There’s a huge possibility to grow,” Beech said. “Especially with the reach the Chamber has. Last year they built the app and launched it, and it was very quick. With us soliciting in January and it being up and fully functional when the dipnet starts, we’ll just get in and out earlier.”
Most dipnet advertisers were businesses, but Caring for the Kenai is a nonprofit that organizes an annual competition for local students to present conservation ideas and projects. Caring for the Kenai recently rebranded itself as Caring for My Backyard to encourage similar competitions in other places. Founder Merrill Sikorski said his group wanted to use the dipnet advertising for public relations. He said he wasn’t sure whether or not the advertising led to increased traffic on the Caring for the Kenai website.
“I think we’d do it again this year, just because I think the app is a good thing,” Sikorski said.
Reach Ben Boettger at email@example.com.