The onslaught of fish and fishermen encountered during this year’s red run left Soldotna’s understaffed Parks and Recreation Department scrambling to address issues of mounting fish waste, overloaded outhouses, and clogged campgrounds.
The department had a “great difficulty” hiring personnel this summer, as it simply did not get many applications in response to the posted job listing, Parks and Rec Director Andrew Carmichael said.
This bare minimum of staffing, paired with the surge in sockeye numbers, led to a pile-up of fish carcasses at the city’s campgrounds and an overuse of the bathroom facilities.
“It was crazy. It was nothing short of crazy,” Carmichael said. “It was the strongest red run I’ve seen in the 20 years that I’ve been in Alaska, and everybody I’ve talked to said it was the best one that they could remember.”
Soldotna City Councilmember Brenda Hartman addressed the issue at the July 27 council meeting. She said the stench of the rotting fish carcasses at Centennial Park was overpowering, and that fishermen were not throwing the scraps in the river as is required. Instead, she said, a wall of fish built up on the banks, which people would stand in and clean their fish in, leading to unsanitary conditions.
“I think there are a lot of things we could do to make improvements,” Hartman said. “And if it costs the campers and the boat launchers a little bit more during the summer months to make those improvements or pay someone to patrol (then it would be worth it).”
The bathrooms, which are 20 years old and lack adequate ventilation, require too frequent of maintenance, said City Engineer Kyle Kornelis, and the staff has a hard time keeping them clean.
On the bright side, the overuse of the campgrounds — Centennial, Rotary, and Swiftwater — generated what Carmichael estimates to be a 6-percent increase in revenue for the department. The boat launch at Centennial, however, saw a decrease in use.
Despite all of obstacles encountered this summer, Carmichael already has a solid plan of action to solve, or at least improve on, these problems next season.
In addition to seeking a new overall host for Centennial, the department will also be seeking bathroom hosts. Campground users who are selected as hosts “won’t be folding towels like in fine restaurant bathrooms,” Carmichael said, but will care for the outhouses in exchange for free camping in July.
The department will also staff Swiftwater 24 hours a day in July, and will either put a host in Rotary or staff it for three weeks during the red run to make sure people are abiding by the pay system. Carmichael estimated several thousand dollars are lost each year due to people taking advantage of the honor system policy.
The council has already appropriated $50,000 to go toward the construction of vaulted outhouses at the campgrounds, which will feature an updated design and large pipe to warm and draw air out of holding tank to reduce standard Port-O-Potty odors. The bathroom trailer, which has been at Soldotna Creek Park for the past two years, will also be returned to Centennial next season.
To deal with fish waste, Carmichael is planning on repositioning the cleaning stations and tag-teaming with the Russian River Stream Watch program to promote the “Cut, Chop, and Throw” means of fish carcass removal. This educational endeavor encourages fishermen to chop their fish carcasses into smaller pieces before flinging them into the river.
And as far as staffing goes, Carmichael plans to advertise available positions much earlier in the year and intends to have 20 additional staff hours per week available to assist with the fish clean-up issue.
“My prediction is the numbers will be back again next year,” Carmichael said, referring to the fishermen. “They will have had so much fun and gotten so many fish this year that they’re not going to miss out on the opportunity to have it happen again.
“While it was a beautiful month, when it rains it pours,” he continued. “And this year, it poured fishermen and fish.”