SOLDOTNA, Alaska — On a chilly, wet morning in August 124 people clad in warm coats, dry gear and hats climbed into 31 aluminum fishing boats in groups of five, including the guides, and launched on the Kenai River before dawn had broken.
The boats — part of Yamaha Marine’s Kenai River Classic, which was held Aug. 24-25 — were outfitted with fishing rods and 50-hp outboards and were well stocked with bait, tackle, sandwiches and an adult beverage or two. The boats, in large part, came from local fishing guide companies.
Yamaha has been the main sponsor of the classic for all 25 years of its existence.
On one boat, David “Catdaddy” Drake told the four occupants about the best and most challenging parts of his job.
Undoubtedly the best part, he said, is getting the opportunity to guide a boat that includes kids — particularly those fishing for the first time. Despite the steady, cold rain he pulled out his iPhone to show photos of 10-year-old twins posing with an enormous king (Chinook) salmon they’d landed, their expressions almost as stunned by the size of the fish as they were ecstatic over the catch. “Look at that face,” he said, pointing to a picture of a girl grimacing under the weight of the gigantic fish’s tail.
Shifting to the hardest part of his job, Drake started to talk about some of the rules that recreational anglers live with on the river — getting stopped to count the number of active rods, and compare to catches, to make sure nobody who’d limited out was still fishing, for example. Some of the rules, he conceded, were important to making sure the fish stocks stayed healthy. It made sense. His livelihood, and the livelihood of many others, depend on there being fish, and lots of them.
But there were others that felt lopsided to him, given the allocation and access given to the commercial fishermen, especially because so many of those commercial licenses were held by out-of-staters who would take their summer earnings home to spend.
It would become a recurring theme among the locals who fish the river in a town that seems to revolve around the industry, with its many lodges, outdoor clothing stores, restaurants and bait and tackle shops.
Though each fishery is unique, it helps exemplify the conflict and difficulty in managing saltwater fish stocks for the vastly different commercial and recreational industries.
$14 million raised
The Kenai River Classic, an annual event designed to raise money for habitat restoration, fisheries education, research and management, gives invitees an opportunity to catch silvers (coho salmon) on the river.
This was the 25th anniversary of the event, which has raised $14 million thus far for those efforts. It followed a U.S. Senate field hearing to discuss saltwater fish stock management, during which recreational fishing stakeholders testified that rules weren’t always fair regarding the two sectors and that they ignore the amount of money recreational fishing pumps into the nation’s economy.
One of the big issues in this region is that Cook Inlet is a mixed-stock, multiuser fishery, says Kristin Mellinger, principal of V3 Strategic Solutions and chairwoman of the Kenai River Classic.
King salmon and reds (sockeye) overlap in June and July, and sockeye and coho overlap at the end of the summer. State regulations require that fishery management plans assign kings a conservation requirement and sportfishing priority, sockeye a commercial fishing priority and coho a sportfishing priority.
“All of this comes to a head in July,” Mellinger says. “Over half of all angler days in the state occur in Cook Inlet, but commercial fishing has a priority for sockeye, while sportfishing has a priority for king and coho salmon.”
In a perfect world the user groups would share, she says, but in Cook Inlet the commercial fishermen have four lobbyists — versus zero sportfishing lobbyists — who all have offices in the same building as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“The result is a total commercial fishing priority,” Mellinger says.
Conservation of king salmon, which run in late June and early July, is the first problem, she says. “When the king returns are low, the sport fishery practices conservation by going to catch-and-release or closing the fishery altogether,” she says. “However, the commercial fishermen are targeting sockeye salmon, but can’t help but catch kings, too, because they all tend to swim together.”
Commercial fishermen use large nets, making it tough to avoid catching fish they’re not targeting. Recreational fishermen use different techniques, bait and positioning on the river to target specific species.
The next problem occurs in July, when both sport and commercial groups are fishing, Mellinger says.
Commercial fishermen target fish swimming in the inlet headed toward the Kenai River, she says. “The commercial fishermen get the fish first, and then the escapement — fish allowed to spawn — and sport fishermen get what is left,” Mellinger says.
“Economically this doesn’t make sense. The commercial fishing industry doesn’t even pay for itself when you measure taxes and licenses, compared to the cost of the state of Alaska’s Commercial Fishing Department. On the other hand, the sportfishing industry contributes 80 percent of the revenue into the local economies in the summer. Many people think sportfishing should be given the priority in Cook Inlet.”
Commercial fishing advocates say sportfishing activity keeps locals from spending money elsewhere in the economy, and without it the money would still get spent.
But that seems to overlook the fact that the 7-square-mile town of Soldotna, along the Kenai that empties into Cook Inlet in the nearby city of Kenai, has several businesses that cater to the town’s vibrant fishing and hunting tourism base. Ranked as No. 7 among the world’s 15 best rivers for travelers by CNN in 2014, the town’s chamber of commerce lists more than 50 charter and fishing guide companies on its website.
That doesn’t include shops offering fishing gear, tackle, bait, jackets or restaurants catering to tourists. According to the Peninsula Clarion, 2015 was a record year for the Kenai Peninsula’s tourism industry, with a 7.8 percent jump in guided water tours.
“While the entire state of Alaska saw strong tourism numbers, the Kenai Peninsula’s growth outpaced the rest of Alaska by a significant margin,” Shanon Davis, executive director of the marketing council, told the newspaper. The overall size of sportfishing in Cook Inlet is about $800 million, says Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, citing a 2007 report on the recreation’s economic impact by Southwick Associates Inc.
Conversely, the commercial fishing industry sells its products almost exclusively out of state — touted as a positive because then Alaskans aren’t spending money on the products and can use the money on other goods and services. Several commercial fishermen hire from outside the state, with about a third in the region being non-Alaskan, Gease says. On an airplane departing Anchorage, a young man reported that he’d been working at a cannery in Kenai but was heading back home to Atlanta.
Anyone who has spoken to an avid angler knows they will pretty much buy anything if it has the potential to land the next fish. In Alaska there seem to be almost as many women anglers as men, and they’re looking for things made specifically for them so they don’t have to make do with a men’s small.
On the second day of the classic, at least one boat held all women — Kasey Loomis, owner and guide at Eric Loomis Fishing; Alaska Republican state Rep. Charisse Millett; Kari Bustamante, sports director at NBC affiliate KTUU; Mellinger; and this reporter. Bustamante, Millett and Mellinger enthusiastically discussed gear for women since, sadly, so much of it is still designed exclusively for men.
They focused on gear made in Alaska for women, by women. Bustamante, a millennial who has spent her career fishing on TV, wore a hoodie by Homer-based Salmon Sisters, launched by two women looking for clothes designed to fit women. Mellinger mentioned that Amber Stephens, of Crafty Girl Designs in Anchorage, makes the headband she had just given one of the boat’s occupants, and said her bag and leggings were made by FisheWear, launched by Linda Leary in Anchorage.
It’s impossible to quantify, but three Alaskan companies formed and run by women exist by catering specifically to women who fish. In Soldotna, Wilderness Way and Sportsman Warehouse offer gear. Two independently owned hardware stores have “fishing” or “tackle” in the name, and there are several other tackle and bait stores around town.
What can be measured
Guided angler freshwater spending is about $750 a day, Gease says. That compares with an average visitor’s spending per trip, which is $800 for 8.8 days.
“So one day spending by a visitor on a guided fishing trip is about equal to overall spending of a visitor on a nine-day trip,” Gease says. Of that $750, $250 is spent on the guide, $250 on lodging, and the rest is spread among areas such as food, fish processing, shipping and local transportation.
“Also, most visitors will spend a week fishing on the Kenai — two or three days on the Kenai, one or two days on the saltwater fishing for halibut, maybe an upper river rainbow trip, and maybe a fly-out to the west side of Cook Inlet,” Gease says. “All told, in a week an angler can spend $5,000 to $10,000 on a trip fishing in Cook Inlet.”
Those trips run for about 16 or 17 weeks from June to mid-September, Mellinger says. “They can’t fish on Sundays or Mondays, so usually no more than 85 days a year, but not every day is booked,” she says. “Most guides report that they fish about 70 days a year.”
Many of the 175 guides on the lower river run a Willie Predator with a 50-hp Yamaha outboard, Gease says. A new package and trailer, along with all the gear, runs between $35,000 and $50,000, depending on who you ask. Guides spend about $10,000 annually to service their boats, and another $10,000 on business expenses such as advertising, Gease says.
The classic and the river
Legislators and sportfishing advocates gathered on Aug. 23, the day before the Classic, at the home of longtime sportfishing advocates Bob and Jeannie Penney, after the U.S. Senate field hearing held by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, to discuss saltwater fish stock management.
“What we have seen over these last two and a half decades in terms of gatherings is people coming together to care for a resource,” U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told a group of about 175 people at the home overlooking the Kenai River. “What you have established working with Sen. Ted Stevens is an accomplishment” that can’t be underestimated.
Former U.S. Sen. Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator, who held office in Alaska from 1968 until 2009, was a key topic for speakers at the event.
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the act that governs saltwater fishing in federal waters, was named in part for the senator, who died in a plane crash in 2010. Among other things, the MSA established a 200-mile protective zone to keep foreign fleets from fishing America’s waters and sought to ensure biological and economic sustainability of the nation’s fisheries.
Congressional speakers included Sullivan, Alaska Senate president Pete Kelley, state Rep. Scott Kawasaki and state Sen. Kevin Meyer. Also speaking were Catherine Stevens, widow of the senator; the Penneys; Gen. Mark Hamilton, president emeritus of the University of Alaska and chairman of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association; former Gov. Tony Knowles; KRSA executive director Ricky Gease; and Ben Speciale, president of Yamaha Marine Group.
“This river has the most public access points of any river in Alaska, and among the most in the United States,” Mellinger said from a boat fishing the Kenai River Classic on Aug. 25. “It’s one of the few places Alaskans can fish for king salmon without being rich” because of the geographic challenges and expense of accessing other locations.
The KRSA is helping to educate locals on salmon, Mellinger says, noting that fries burrow as much as 50 feet into the banks. Bank erosion, which happens when fishermen walk on the bank and when the river freezes, can threaten the fries as the river widens.
“Those silver piers you see allow people to walk on the bank and still have access without threatening the fries,” Mellinger says. But there is still a lot of erosion from ice, so the KRSA has been laying trees to form a sort of underwater fence, allowing silt from the river to collect so the willows can reseed and offer natural protection to the fries.
“I’ve watched kids catch their first fish or net their first fish, and that’s why you can allow access and keep the bank protected,” Mellinger says. “People don’t want to hurt the habitat; they just don’t know. So that’s where we come in. That’s where dollars from the Kenai River Classic are going, and we appreciate it.”
“We have encouraged people from the lower 48 to come to this event because it is so special,” says Martin Peters, senior manager of marine communications and government relations for Yamaha.
Getting children involved in the Kenai River Junior Classic is important to sustaining the industry and to conservation, advocates say. (There is also a Kenai River Women’s Classic.) Emceeing at an auction designed to raise money for the KRSA on Aug. 24, Bustamante underscored the importance of getting kids on the water.
“When my father and I were first asked to co-emcee the Kenai Classic, we sat down and started thinking of our fishing stories on the Kenai together,” Bustamante says. “While we came up with a lot of fishless, embarrassing stories I could tell about my dad, the truth is our memories on the Kenai are some of the best I had as a kid, and when I was offered the opportunity to become the host of the Fishing Report, my dad is the first person I called. So I just want to say thank you, dad. If it wasn’t for my dad I wouldn’t have this passion for sportfishing.”
A U.S. Senate field hearing
The U.S. Senate field hearing at the Kenai Peninsula College focused on the struggles between sectors vying for more access and allocation of fish in the nation’s saltwater fisheries. Sullivan, who led the hearing, is chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Fisheries and the Coast Guard, which is part of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
“This is a big deal for us,” Speciale said the night before the Aug. 23 hearing. “This is the first time we’ve had this Senate subcommittee convene” at this venue.
Titled “Reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act: Oversight of Fisheries Management Successes and Challenges in Alaska,” the hearing included testimony from various sectors about major issues affecting the management of federal fisheries and access to federal waters.
Testifying on behalf of the recreational boating and fishing industries were Spud Woodward, director of the coastal resources division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources; Speciale; and Liz Ogilvie, director of Keep America Fishing, American Sportfishing Association.
Keep America Fishing’s Ogilvie said there are substantial economic opportunities for the recreational industry regarding offshore fishing, but “we are confronted with a management system that for years has been limiting that opportunity.” The recreational fishing community has an adversarial view of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fishery management, Ogilvie says.
“While efforts have been made in recent years to improve the dialogue between the agency and anglers and to better understand how to address concerns, anglers have seen little change in the agency’s actions and how they translate to fishing opportunities,” Ogilvie says. “Fairly or unfairly, the general perception among anglers is that NOAA Fisheries only understands and cares about commercial fishing.”
Some who offered testimony cautioned against revisions to the Magnuson-Stevens Act. “I would certainly caution against allowing flexibility that would overshadow conservation,” says Linda Behnken, president of the Halibut Coalition and executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. “Far too often, decisions are driven just by straight economics.”
“I would be very wary of lowering the bar of data collection to be more inclusive,” says Lori Swanson, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance.
All states affected
The impact of saltwater fishing is not just coastal; it touches all 50 states, Speciale testified.
Georgia-based Yamaha produces more than 60,000 steel propellers a year in Indianapolis. “More than a third of those props are used in saltwater boat applications despite the fact that they are manufactured in a landlocked state,” Speciale says. The components come from states that range from Pennsylvania to Indiana, and alloys are mined in areas that include Colorado.
“We’d like to see a fairer allocation methodology, based off the economic output,” Speciale says. “The recreational industry is a big, big industry. It’s good for the economy of the United States, and that doesn’t take away from other sectors, it’s just way different.”
Woodward testified that five years of a red snapper moratorium and a total of 17 days of allowable harvest since 2010 have left Georgia residents in the South Atlantic “totally dismayed.”
“The same can be said about thousands of Georgians who fish for snapper in the Gulf when they learned that federal waters were only going to be open for three days in 2017,” Woodward says.
Fortunately state and federal authorities reached an agreement to extend that season, Woodward says. “However, as of today the South Atlantic remains closed to the harvest of red snapper despite a marked increase in abundance to the point that discards, not harvests, are now the management challenge.”
The estimates of dead discards, though imprecise, “actually exceeded the annual catch limit and perpetuated closures, leading to lost fishing opportunities,” Woodward says.
Adding to the frustration among Georgia residents was the restriction of cobia fishing in federal waters, Woodward says. North Carolina and Virginia weren’t subject to the restrictions because cobia are caught in state waters. In Georgia they’re found in federally managed waterways. “So our anglers lost a recreational fishing opportunity without there being a commensurate conservation benefit or need,” Woodward says.
“The takeaway today was that federal regulators realized there was an issue with federal oversight and management of recreational fishing,” Phil Dyskow, Yamaha Marine Group’s immediate past president, said after the event. “In order for any of this to happen, we need a champion in Congress to say, ‘I’m going to fix this’ or ‘I’m going to address this need.’ That’s what I see lacking right now. The real issue is, we can’t fix this. This needs a congressional solution.”
That seemed the consensus among advocates and people making their living on the Kenai River, who made the case that the discussion has been skewed for too long toward the commercial sector. All acknowledged the importance of commercial fishing, but insist that the two sectors should be handled separately.
“While it is admirable to set goals that are uniform across all federally managed fisheries, the one-sizefits-all approach to managing marine species with widely varying life cycles, habitat requirements and vulnerability to fishing mortality cannot work when applied from the Western Pacific to the South Atlantic,” Woodward said. “Rather than set prescriptive goals, the MSA should allow the decision makers to use their best judgment to determine how best to eliminate overfishing and rebuild stocks without eliminating all opportunities for access to the fish.”
Although the monetary value of saltwater fishing in Georgia is small, compared to Florida and the Pacific Northwest, it’s important to consider that the true value of recreational saltwater fishing cannot be measured solely in dollars and cents, Woodward testified.
“Instead the true value must be measured in the currency of fishing stories told and retold, photographs of memorable catches, the fresh seafood meal shared with family and friends and the excitement that comes with anticipation of a day on the water,” Woodward said. “This value arises from opportunity and access to public trust waters and resources.”
As Drake expressed on the water, the most valuable part of what he does is seeing a child catch a fish for the first time in hopes that he will have helped foster a lifelong love for fishing and conservation of the fish.
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue.