Closure tough to tackle : Kenai River shutdown hurting the local fishing business

Posted: Friday, June 11, 2010

In five years Ken's Alaskan Tackle might not be around. Ken Lacy, longtime owner of the shop in Soldotna, is thinking about shuttering his business because of dwindling salmon returns that are bad for business.

The Department of Fish and Game's closure of the Kenai River to early-run king salmon sport fishing has been devastating to Lacy.

"Right now I could probably fire all the girls and shut down the store and not miss it," he said.

He said business has been down some 65 to 70 percent for him since Fish and Game made the announcement last week.

The tackle store usually sees 20 to 30 people an hour but now there has been 20 to 30 people a day, he said. And the store is open 14 hours.

Lacy is already anticipating a terrible year financially.

"There's no way to recover right now," he said. "It's a lost year."

Due to low king salmon counts and fear of not making the sustainable escapement goal this year, Fish and Game closed the fishery from the river's mouth to the Soldotna bridge for the rest of the month.

As of Wednesday, 2,840 kings were counted in the river, well below the 5,000 fish that typically have made their way upstream by this date. This is the earliest Fish and Game has restricted the fishery for early run kings on the Kenai.

Dave Goggia of Hooky Charters said he has had to cancel some guided fishing reservations.

"We're having to give back deposits and find other fisheries to take our clients to," he said.

As the president of the Kenai Professional Guide Association, he said that he has mixed feelings about Fish and Game's decision.

"We are pleased to see the department trying to protect the species, but at the same time we don't feel like they used all the tools they had in the toolbox," Goggia said. "To lessen the impact on the economy they could have gone to catch-and-release and kept a close eye on the run. Closing it slammed the door on the whole economy here."

Fish and Game "just didn't communicate with the user groups or industry leaders. They just sort of closed it on their own and let everybody deal with it."

Jimmie Jack Drath, owner of Jimmie Jack Fishing lodge and guide service, said he has not had cancellations but business has been slow.

"The phone's not ringing so there's all that could have been that isn't there," he said.

He said his finances look flush, or even just a little bit up from last year's national economic slump.

But Drath has had to switch over his Kenai trips to the Kasilof River, where the king fishery has been restricted to retention of hatchery-produced salmon only. Drath said he has two drift boats to use on the drift boat-only Kasilof (compared to his four for the Kenai) and so he's had to contract with other guides to service his clients.

"Definitely there was some loss there," he said.

And not only is Drath missing the business, but he said he's missing the typical electric feeling that comes during fishing season.

"It's just kind of dead around here. There's no movement," he said. "That excitement, that summer sizzle has been gone."

He's waiting for that, as well as the fish, to come back this season.

The Kenai's closure does not just affect the fishing guides or tackle shops.

Jerry Dunn, owner of Beluga Point RV Park, said he has had some cancellations but his business will be impacted more if the river is closed in July.

Fran Jones, owner of Buckets Sports Grill in Soldotna, said her business has been about average for the first part of June. It's too early to tell if her business will be negatively impacted, she said.

"This weekend will tell it," she said, adding that around June 10 is typically the summer kickoff for the restaurant's business, usually tripling on the 10th.

"We'll see what happens," she said.

In terms of tourism, the numbers are up 25 percent so far from last year, according to Natasha Ala, executive director of the Kenai Convention and Visitors Bureau.

She said the Kenai has been seeing a lot more out-of-state and international travelers.

"I think we're coming out of the recession," she said. "As a whole the visitor industry is looking like we're heading into a good year. We keep our fingers crossed on the weather and the fish always because those things have a pretty good impact."

Similar to casting a line for a king in the world-renowned Kenai, predicting salmon runs and tourists statistics can be a guessing game.

But it doesn't change the fact that Ken's Alaskan Tackle could be going under.

"There's not going to be any fish here in five years," Lacy said. "I'll probably close my business before then because I can see the writing on the wall."

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@peninsulaclarion.com.



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