At a quick glance, the dismal return of sockeye to the Kenai River may not appear to have much impact on the southern Kenai Peninsula. A longer look, however, would reveal otherwise.
An estimated 175 Homer-area commercial boats participate in the fishery. While many of these boats also participate in other fisheries, their ability to make their boat and insurance payments, keep up with maintenance on their boats and renew their fish permits may be hampered by the poor sockeye run. There’s little doubt there will be some belt tightening this winter as fishermen struggle to make ends meet.
Beyond the direct hit the commercial fishing fleet will take, there will be a ripple effect that reaches far beyond the Kenai River. The Cook Inlet salmon stocks generated approximately $105 million to the borough’s economy last year in commercial harvesting, processing and tourism-related businesses. Those same businesses employed more than 4,000 workers boroughwide.
The poor run means fewer processing jobs and less income for those who do have jobs. Tourism could be affected in lots of ways. For example, those who hear that red fishing on the Kenai has been shut down may avoid the peninsula entirely. The last two weeks in July traditionally are when central peninsula businesses report their busiest part of the summer season. When sales are down, so is the amount of sales tax collected and that pinches every borough resident.
While peninsula communities take pride in their distinctness, something like this season’s poor return of reds shows how interconnected we are. One area cannot experience a disaster, economic or otherwise, without ramifications throughout the peninsula.
It is still possible escapement goals will be met, but even if that happens, it will be too little, too late to do the commercial fishing fleet and other businesses much good. That’s why it’s important that the borough mayor be prepared with an economic disaster declaration to pass along to the governor.
The poor red run serves as a reminder of several important lessons:
· Mother Nature is unpredictable at best. While this was not expected to be any kind of banner year for reds on the Kenai, it certainly was not expected to be this abysmal either.
· While the peninsula’s economy is known for its diversity, that does not make any segment of it immune from slumps. The diversity does not eliminate the disasters, but it will help us weather them.
· While different user groups can argue all they want about the best way to manage all the peninsula’s fisheries, keeping all the fisheries healthy should be the goal. Commercial fishing, sportfishing, personal-use fishing are all important components of the livelihood and lifestyle of the peninsula.
· When disaster strikes, it’s good to remember we’re all in this together. Now is not the time to point fingers or play the blame game; it is time to consider if our management strategies are working for the long-term health of the Cook Inlet fisheries. If not, why not?
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