There are some things Norm Darch has to buy for his Salamatof Beach setnet sites every year such as fuel, supplies for his crew, nets and maintenance on his equipment.
Other things, like capital improvements, new boats or tractors and even hiring the same size crew, will have to wait.
6.7 million sockeye are predicted to make it back to the Upper Cook Inlet during the 2013 fishing season, a run that should yield a harvest of more than one million fish above the 20-year average harvest. But local setnetters say they are unwilling to invest any more money into a fishery they were largely shut out of during the last season.
Likewise, Kenai River sport fish guides are approaching the coming season with caution after uncertainty in the 2012 king salmon season led to in-season restrictions.
“As of right now, my crew has called and they’re saying ‘What’s your plan?’ I’m saying, right now, don’t plan,” Darch said. “As far as capital improvements, I’m not investing in anything, it’s going bare bones.”
Pat Shields, area management biologist in the commercial division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said he’s heard from several fishermen that planning their crews is a challenge.
“Based on what happened in 2012, should they go out and hire a whole crew?” Shields said. “It’s a little different from normal.”
While East Side setnetters were given a handful of openings throughout their season last year, many said they had lost a significant amount of money for the season.
Robert Williams, who fishes on Cohoe Beach, said the sockeye salmon forecast was not biblical, but generally a good indicator of how a season would work.
However, because he was unsure if he’d be allowed an opportunity to fish, the size of the run was immaterial.
“I’ve fished before on small returns and just not made any money because there wasn’t a harvestable surplus of sockeye,” he said.
So Williams, like Darch, said he probably will not hire as many crew members.
Still, even cutting back on expenses may not ease the financial burden.
“In 2011, I bought a brand new John Deere tractor because we had a good season and even though they decoupled the (drift) fleet on us for a few days that year because the kings were late, everybody got over it quickly because we got to fish.”
Those tractors, Williams said, represent millions of dollars to local setnetters.
The overhead costs for starting the season still loom as well, he said.
Williams said when he considered the economic impacts on the area he had concerns for the future.
“We’ve been beaten up on for a while,” he said. “The inriver (guides) too, they’re facing the same thing we are with these king projections. It’s going to put a hurting on the local area, I think.”
Alex Douthit, owner and operator of Salmon Buster’s Guide Service said the increasingly restricted king fishing season on the Kenai River has made it much harder for him to conduct business.
“I’ve got clients calling and saying ‘Are we going to be able to fish?’ and I’m saying, ‘I have no idea’,” Douthit said. “I’ve got one client ... this is his first year in close to 20 years that he and his wife aren’t going to come up. It’s definitely impacting everybody. Everybody is a little gun shy about making plans to come up again.”
Joe Hanes, who owns and operates the Fish Magnet Guide service, blames the uncertainty of the fishery on poor management.
“It’s not just the runs of the fish that we’re dealing with, we’re dealing with management concerns too. Big time,” Hanes said. “That’s probably the more difficult thing to deal with … the management strategies have been extremely conservative over the last five or six years where we’ve had closures that were far to early.”
Hanes said in the past two years he has seen several kings caught when the river was restricted to no-bait.
“When you hit glacial water, it is really hard to catch them without bait,” Hanes said. “That’s what was so frustrating about the last few years in July it was like, holy mackerel, there is a lot of fish in here and they closed it.”
The closure to king fishing has been devastating on his business, Hanes said.
“When they close us, we lose our bookings for weeks,” he said. “When they reopen we can’t just call people and tell them to come back.”
Douthit and Hanes said clients who are booking king fishing trips in 2013 have booked toward the end of July, a departure from when they typically fish.
“Bookings I’m getting so far this year are saying, ‘Are there sockeye at that time of year?’” Douthit said. “They’re all worried about spending all that money coming up and leaving with nothing. “
Hanes said the king fishery has slowly been condensed to a two-week period in July as clients become gun shy about booking trips during times of the year that the river has been restricted.
“People can’t make a season on the last two weeks of July,” Douthit said. “You can’t live off of two weeks of work.”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at email@example.com.