With personal-use dipnet fishery and the M/V Susitna ferry in the news this week, we’d like to pitch an idea that could, perhaps, alleviate some of the challenges associated with both issues.
The city of Kenai has been debating what to do about the dipnet fishery, which takes place at the mouth of the Kenai River every July. Thousands of Alaskans take advantage of the opportunity to fill their freezers with sockeye salmon, but the city has been tasked with managing the hordes — and cleaning up after them.
Meanwhile, the $78 million Susitna sits unused by its owner, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, which last month announced that it would offer the vessel free of charge to any government entity that wants it.
We see an opportunity here. The Susitna is a remarkable vessel. It was designed as a prototype for the Navy and constructed in Ketchikan. It not only was designed with ice-breaking capabilities, it also has landing craft capabilities. It can accommodate 129 passengers and 20 vehicles.
Here’s our idea: Load up the Susitna in the Mat-Su with all those sockeye-hungry dipnetters, then run them down to the Kenai or Kasilof. With its landing craft capability, drop them off right on the beach at high tide, then pick them up and run them back up Cook Inlet on the next high tide.
Think of all the benefits. It would keep hundreds of vehicles off the road during July. The city of Kenai could still charge a head tax to cover costs associated with managing the fishery. Offer some sort of assistance with loading and unloading, and dipnetters might be more inclined to take their fish home whole, or perhaps fish carcasses could be dumped out in the inlet on the way. Passengers could pay a fairly high rate and still come out ahead when the costs of travel to and from the Peninsula are factored in.
Now, our pitch is given somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Unless someone can come up with something to do with the Susitna for the other 11 months of the year, a month of service probably isn’t going to cover the costs of operating and maintaining the vessel. And we won’t even get into the headaches associated with permitting and construction of landings for the Susitna at Port McKenzie or Anchorage.
But our point is this: The Mat-Su Borough currently owns a vessel with capabilities that don’t match its envisioned use, which was to ferry commuters across Knik Arm to Anchorage. However, Alaska has some 6,000 miles of coastline, much of it in the Arctic, and there is a constant clamor over our lack of maritime resources along large swaths of it. Surely someone somewhere can put a state-of-the-art vessel like to Susitna to good use.