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Alaska operators say river closures affecting business

Posted: September 24, 2012 - 8:40am

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 Alaska 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.

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.

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.

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Watchman on the Wall
Watchman on the Wall 09/24/12 - 09:17 am
Try Obama as your spokesman

Sounds like the fishing guides want to have people in the dark until it's to late and they have already spent their money, then spring the news on them. It looks exactly like this presidential race with it's twisted numbers that would show a sunken ship that will provide nothing for all the little fishes of America very soon. For professional BS'ers on how good things are even when there not, try a Liberal Democrate, they'll lie about anything and make it sound wonderful, even sitting in a pot of water after it's boiling.
Look it does not take a rocket scientist to understand that closers cause less tourist, but thats what happens when people target a certain type of fish, there are more fish in the pond you know. Then there are the thousands of guides that have already fished out their rivers in the lower 48 so they move North to Alaska, well that rush is coming to an end as well it does appear so they can stay home and fish their own states empty ponds & rivers.
Things are going to get far worse than what we saw this year with tourism as the middle class has to give all they have worked for to others that work for nothing.
What a mess.
Please forgive me if i have missed the point of this article which seems to be pushing for less truth about reality and have hurt anyones feelings.

bornalaskan 09/24/12 - 09:14 pm
river closure

Cry cry cry I would like to see the fishing shut down on the river for a few years and build the fishing back up to where it was when I was a kid in the 70s Myself and my family will still be here the question is will the guides. Not

Carver 09/25/12 - 11:14 am
Balanced reporting?

This is the second Clarion article I've seen on how bad things are for our area's economics because of the decline in the sport-fishery.

Unlike the commercial in-river fishery that can recoup some of the loss by diverting clients to other fisheries, the set-nets have so such option.

We should be reading about how the closure of the East-side set-net fishery has likewise hurt our area's economics.

Did over two million sockeye really get up the Kenai? Did we really forego the harvest of a million fish simply to pander to anglers obsessed with size?

Kapco 09/25/12 - 07:16 pm
here we go again...

Carver arguing that there is not enough coverage of the east side netter's plight--seems I have seen a number (at least 3) articles talking about meetings and the viewpoint of the east siders. bornalaskan wanting to keep everyone off the river to see the fish come back to the wonder years. Well, we can keep fighting over what the draggers leave for EVERYONE ELSE in the state to fish for--or not fish for or, the affected groups can combine together to eliminate the biggest and by far the most detremental aspect to this whole issue, the bycatch of all salmon on the factory/dragger boats. We can have the best river conditions, regulate the krap out it, keep the east siders off the kings and it won't matter if the fish are decimated outside. Everyone needs to think a bit futher than the river or Cook Inlet...try taking a look at the new (09) U.S. Oceans policy and you will see that feds are giving away our ocean's resources to pirates and regulating ALL of us out of OUR oceans.

Kapco 09/25/12 - 07:26 pm
Oh, and by the way...

watchman on the wall--just so you know, the salmon runs in the lower forty-eight are very strong, in fact, at record numbers in many areas. California has seen a huge return throughout the state and the Columbia river has been very good for a number of years with near record and record runs of kings along with a miraculous return of sockeye. And, the fact of the matter is, the great migration of guides to Alaska has come to a screeching hault over the last 3-5 years. The successes in California and the Columbia are due to the regulation and enfocement of ocean commercial fishing, gillnetting in the river(s) as well as strict sport regulations and ultimately, giving the fish the water they needed to be successful. Alaska's problems with fish lie in the bering and gulf and are a by-product of spineless regulatory restraints and enforcement on the draggers...period.

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