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Kenai closure brings wave of mixed opinions

Businesses express concerns of effects on tourism; others say there's still fishing

Posted: Wednesday, June 12, 2002

Rick Giannini of Liverpool, N. Y., traveled to the Kenai Peninsula with friends to celebrate their respective 50th birthdays by catching Kenai River kings.

Much to their dismay, they found that Kenai kings were no longer on the menu.

"We went into the gas station to buy our (king) salmon stamps, and we saw the headline in the newspaper," Giannini said Tuesday.

Giannini's disappointment mirrored the reaction of many in the peninsula's tourism industry, as well as other visitors.

"We've been planning this trip for six months," he said.

Although there are some who are optimistic the peninsula will survive the closing of the Kenai to early run king salmon fishing, many others feel it has pulled the plug on the beginning of an already shaky tourism season.

"It's going to be a pretty devastating effect," said guide Tim Berg, who owns Alaskan Fishing Adventures in Soldotna. "What's happened in the past, people think the whole Kenai Peninsula is closed. So we don't get the tourists from Outside. People don't come down for halibut fishing, as well."

Berg, who has been guiding for 15 years, said there are alternatives to fishing the Kenai River, but "the Kenai is still the No. 1 draw on the whole peninsula."

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced Monday the Kenai River would be closed to fishing for chinooks because of a weak run, the second lowest on record.

Because the central peninsula's economy depends so heavily on sportfishing during the summer months, there could be some backlash to 20 days without king fishing, said Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Brett Huber.

"Seventy percent of all sportfishing in Alaska is in Southcentral," he said, referring to Alaska Department of Fish and Game numbers. "And 70 percent of sportfishing in Southcentral is on the Kenai.

"What you're going to see are campgrounds that don't have people. You're going to see it at grocery stores, hotels and gas stations. I don't think any sector of our economy is sheltered from this."

Bill Wirin owns the Salmon Haus Bed and Breakfast in Soldotna. He said he doesn't anticipate any additional guests for the remainder of June because of the river closing.

"Many times in June, people decide at the last minute to come from Anchorage," he said. "I think we'll see people going other places on the peninsula, but not coming to Soldotna. It certainly will mean we won't pick up any drop-in guests."

Ken Lacy, owner of Ken's Alaska Tackle in Soldotna, runs a fishing guide business along with his store on the Sterling Highway. He said as of Tuesday he had refunded $3,100 for fishing tours, and he expects more. Although he was prepared for the possible financial hit a Kenai River closure could take on his guide business, Lacy said he is more concerned about the revenue in the store.

"I'm down about 60 percent in sales today," he said. "There was a massive drop in license sales, king tag sales and tackle sales. Normally today, I should have sold 60 licenses. I only did 14."

Although fishers are displeased with the closing, they acknowledge the importance of preserving the resource. Huber said in spite of the downside, he is accepting of no Kenai River king fishing.

"We're disappointed that the run is so poor, but we also support the closure," he said.

Joe Connors, president of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association, concurred.

"If these numbers are correct, we've got to protect the resource," he said.

Kenai Visitors and Convention Bureau Executive Director Ricky Gease said all is not lost with the closing of the early king run, however.

"There are still sportfishing opportunities on the western peninsula," he said. "Next week, the upper Kenai will open up, so that's a big fishery for Dolly Vardens and rainbow trout. There also are many stocked lakes ... the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the (Swanson River) canoe trails."

Doug Harkey is visiting from Punta Gorda, Fla., and he said those looking to fish should just fish.

"I'm fishing for anything that bites," he said. "You've got plenty of places to catch them if you really want to catch them."

Alternatives to the Kenai River include the Anchor River, which will be open from Saturday to Monday, and the Ninilchik River, which also will be open this weekend and the weekend of June 22 and 23 for hatchery fish, identified by a clipped adipose fin.

The Kasilof River is another fishery open to kings, but diverted chinook anglers are loading up the river. Soldotna guide Leif Jacobsen of Jacobsen's Guide Service said there was a line of trucks waiting to get drift boats into the river Tuesday morning.

"Today, I got there at 4 in the morning, and I had to wait two hours to get to the boat ramp," he said.

Connors and Lacy said there could be broader impacts from the closing of the kings, however. Connors said the closing will equate to missed business with tourists from Outside.

"These people are going to go away, and they're not going to come back," he said.

Lacy said history shows things have been getting worse over the years. He said lagging revenue in his store could mean a cut in hours for some or all of his six staffers.

"Every year that I've seen this happen, we lose more and more tourists," he said. "I used to write 12,000 licenses. Last year I wrote 7,900. And it's getting worse.

"If it doesn't pick up in a couple of days, I'll have to either cut two employees' hours back or lay two off."

Those who came to Alaska from Outside specifically to fish for Kenai River kings will have to find a different pastime. Ken Holder drove with his wife from Granby, Colo., with plans of getting a king from the Kenai, along with halibut fishing.

"It's a little disappointing, but that's life," he said.

One of Giannini's traveling companions, Rich Strohl, of Albany, N.Y., said his party was lured to the river by lore that reached them in the Lower 48, but may not come back if there are better places to hook the big ones.

"Everybody said that the Kenai was a gorgeous river," he said. "It's disappointing. If it works out great, then we're thinking about coming back. If not, we'll look at other places."



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