Scott Miller backs a boat into the Kenai River for a salmon fishing trip last fall.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Tourism plays a major role in driving the Kenai Peninsula’s economy, and recreational sportfishing is the single biggest draw for visitors to the area.
As the state’s most popular sportfishing river, the Kenai River and its tributaries draw anglers by the hundreds of thousands to the peninsula each year. And when those anglers (from across Alaska and around the world) leave, plenty of their money stays behind.
Ricky Gease is the executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. He said he believes the Kenai River, and sportfishing in general, are vital to keeping the central peninsula’s economy healthy.
“Recreational fishing is the number one reason why people come to the Kenai Peninsula in the summertime,” Gease said.
As a leader in providing river access and habitat restoration on the Kenai River, KRSA is on the front lines of helping to grow and promote the sportfishing industry. Gease said the organization believes the river and a healthy sportfishing industry are one of the reasons the peninsula has such a high standard of living. He noted that the peninsula is able to sustain its retail economy much in part to the strong sales figures provided by anglers and dipnetters who visit during the summer months.
“One of the reasons you have a variety of places to go shop year-round is because of those people that come down here in the summertime,” he said. “It provides the infrastructure for us to have the quality of life we enjoy.”
Gease said keeping strong salmon runs returning to the Kenai River is absolutely essential to the area’s economy. Without salmon for anglers to catch, Gease said the area would lose much of its attraction to visitors.
It’s hard to argue with Gease’s assessment that sportfishing drives the summertime economy. According to the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the peninsula sees its largest visitor counts during July which also happens to be the month when the area’s sockeye and king salmon runs are at their peak.
According to figures complied by the Institute for Social and Economic Research, sportfishing in Southcentral Alaska is a growing industry worth more than half a billion dollars. In the Kenai Peninsula Borough alone, estimates are that visitors to the area accounted for more than $77 million in taxable sales in 2004.
Those figures are a big reason why, Gease said, KRSA is motivated to improve access to the river through a variety of projects and work with landowners and government agencies to promote conservation of the river habitat.
He said that an increase in recreational sportfishing on the peninsula can go hand in hand with greater efforts to preserve the river’s healthy salmon runs.
“We’re looking at the long-term sustainability of the river as a sportfishing river,” he said. “Habitat is the number one priority.”
Matt Tunseth is a freelance writer who lives in Kenai.
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