What is the economic value of a Cook Inlet or Kenai River salmon or the industry it supports?
It depends. It depends on the viewpoint of the answerer. It depends on a vast array of variables, most far beyond our control.
The short answer is: We don't know. The longer answer reveals some tantalizing but frustrating hints that the two-part fishing industry, commercial and sport, is big, but maybe not as big in the peninsula economy as people think.
"We just don't collect enough data. There is a point where government can't get everything," said Jeanne Camp, the economic analyst for the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
She collects fisheries information for the borough's annual "Situations and Prospects" report. It is an exasperating process of pulling together incomplete information from diverse sources. The limited economic history only goes back to 1991.
The numbers for commercial fishing show a decade of declines. Catches and prices dipped during the latter 1990s and reached historic low points in 2000.
So far this summer, fishers are getting 60 to 65 cents a pound for sockeye, while Kenai supermarkets are selling whole fish for $7.99 a pound.
The value of the upper Cook Inlet salmon harvest coming across the docks, as estimated in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's "Upper Cook Inlet Commercial Fisheries Annual Management Report, 2000" was about $8.2 million. That was lower than at any point since 1975.
The gross income borough fish processors reported, about $34 million, was the lowest since the borough began keeping track in 1991. The processors' work force also showed a shrinkage relative to the borough's overall job market, down from 14.7 percent of average monthly employment in 1980 to 3.9 percent last year.
Commercial fishing permits in the borough also reflect the decline. The number of people who reported fishing under any type of permit declined from about 1,650 in 1990 to about 1,100 in 2000. Permit values for purse seiners, drift gillnetters and set gillnetters are all down to about 10 to 20 percent of what they were at their peak prices in 1990.
Sport fishing economic information is even more difficult to find.
"If you want to go into the impact of sport fishing, we can't do it," she said.
Trying to gauge the effect fisheries have on the area economy in general is difficult.
Camp noted that information from the industry often is not reported. Fishing businesses tend to be small family operations that carry out a lot of exempt transactions. Or, if they are reported, fish finances fall under several different categories in state reports.
For example, the borough's taxable sales and employment numbers, as listed in its quarterly reports, include a category called "AFF," lumping agriculture, forestry and fisheries. But fish processing plants fall under manufacturing, fish guides under services and tackle shops under retail trade.
"It is very difficult, because you can't nail down the numbers," Camp said.
Bill Wirin, who runs the Salmon Haus Bed and Breakfast, decided to study the numbers before the 1998 meeting of the Alaska Board of Fisheries in Soldotna. He had heard commercial fishers claim that their industry was a mainstay of the peninsula economy and wanted to check it out.
He looked to see if the strengths of the fish runs correlated with sales tax revenue or employment rates.
"My review showed no correlation at all," he said.
He hypothesized that the commercial fleet and processors have many out-of-state workers and need to buy supplies elsewhere.
"My conclusion was that it is a minor player in the Kenai Peninsula. The money doesn't stay here," he said.
Both Camp and Wirin made it clear that they are not professional economists.
Others who are have undertaken a few studies in the area. Their results give interesting snapshots of the fishing economy, but overviews through time of the entire inlet or peninsula are lacking.
The Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, at the behest of Fish and Game, looked at potential economic impacts of adding 200,000 sockeyes to the Kenai River escapement. The study compared the benefit to sport fishers with the damage to commercial fishers. In the report published in 1996, the researchers concluded that the value lost to the commercial industry would, under most scenarios, outweigh the increase to the sport fishing industry -- but only slightly, and with many unknowns.
"This study confirms what sport and commercial fishing groups have each been saying for years: Kenai River sockeye are very valuable," said the conclusion.
The researchers surveyed thousands of anglers in and out of Alaska, collecting information about sport fishing trips in 1993.
The sport fishers took about 217,000 trips to fish the Kenai River that year and spent about $34 million on them. Alaska residents spent less per trip but came more often; residents and nonresidents ended up spending about equally overall.
"... By bringing additional dollars into the Alaska economy, better fishing on the Kenai could substantially increase the total economic impact that spending by nonresident fishermen has on the Alaska economy," the report said.
"Our rough estimates suggest that most -- about 80 percent -- of the changes in sport fishing economic impacts would occur within the Kenai Peninsula Borough."
The ISER researchers also surveyed permit holders and crew members from the commercial fleet about the 1994 season. They concluded that 2,893 people worked directly in the Cook Inlet commercial fishery, about evenly distributed between the driftnet and setnet fisheries.
Revenues that year were estimated at $13.5 million for setnetters and $19.5 million for driftnetters. Permit holders valued their boats, equipment and related property at $132 million and their permits at $52.2 million.
In 2000, four economists affiliated with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the National Marine Fisheries Service and universities presented a paper at the International Institute of Fisheries Economics and Trade that looked at the economics of the Cook Inlet saltwater sport fishery for both halibut and salmon. Surveys were sent to about 4,000 people who fished in 1997.
It concluded that sport anglers spent $37.4 million on all species (mostly salmon and halibut) in that fishery.
Camp said that a big project is waiting out there for anyone willing to take the time and effort to dig up and connect the economic information on the area salmon fisheries. In the meantime, any analysis would be what she and her colleagues call "voodoo economics."
"We could make guesses. That's all they would be," she said.
But Camp was willing to comment on trends she has seen during her two years of scrutinizing the few facts available. The outlook for the commercial fishery is bleak, she warned.
"Without some major changes, we are going downhill fast," she said.
After attending a couple forums on seafood marketing, Camp came away with the impression that efforts to enhance quality and promote a Cook Inlet brand may be the fishers' best hope.
"It may come back," she said.
"It is going to be up to them whether they make it or not. The processors cannot produce a product that is better than what they receive."
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