Commercial fishers ride out changes

Posted: Saturday, April 22, 2000

While explosive growth has marked the sport fishery on the Kenai Peninsula in recent years, Cook Inlet commercial fisheries have largely been a reliable and steady source of income for the Kenai Peninsula.

The most recent year for which figures are available, 1998, was a tough one for salmon and fishers on Cook Inlet. According to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Economic Development District, returning salmon came back small and fewer in number.

In 1998 commercial fishers bagged 1.5 million sockeye with an average weight of 5.3 pounds. The average harvest for the four previous years was 3.8 million sockeye weighing a little more than 6 pounds each.

The numbers for 1999 are not calculated, yet, but anecdotal evidence from commercial fishers suggests that it was a much better year, more in line with the averages, for commercial fishers than 1998 was.

The number of permit holders has remained roughly the same since limited entry was started in 1974. There are 585 drift permits and approximately 725 setnet permits for upper Cook Inlet, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The number of jobs on the fishing boats and setnet sites remains undetermined, said Jeff Fox, a biologist with Fish and Game.

Fox said a reasonable minimum estimate of drift boat jobs can be extrapolated by doubling the number of permits.

"Every one of those boats has a skipper and at least one deck hand," Fox said. "Set nets are harder to figure because many of those are family operations."

Similarly, the payroll for these fish-catching jobs is hard to pin down, Fox said, because the pay-off in determined by run strength prices and the shares established for each operation.

Cook Inlet's fisheries supported an average of 578 fish processing jobs per-quarter and 1,800 jobs during the peak of the season in 1999, according to the Alaska Department of Labor, The total annual processing payroll was $13 million last year.

Despite the fisheries' stability in growth, the number of liabilities affecting it has continued to grow. Farmed fish, market, run and price fluctuations along with the recession in Japan, Alaska's biggest fish customer, have all conspired to erode commercial fishing's economic clout.

"Hard times for commercial fishers mean hard times for central peninsula businesses," said Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association Executive Director Karl Kircher

Kircher said many of the association's members are just scraping by in the current economic climate. Most of the association's members live on the peninsula and spend their money here with local merchants, he added.

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