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Econ 919 — The economics of dipnetting

Photo: Sabine Poux/KDLL

When you start laying out the expenses line by line, a weekend of dipnetting doesn’t sound so cheap.

How much does it cost Kelly and Larry Williams?

“A ton! I was just thinking about that," said Kelly Williams. "We’ve spent, like, hundreds of dollars already and we haven’t gotten anything."

They’re down for the weekend from Anchorage, so they’re paying for gas and meals. Kelly just traded in her old waders for some new ones.

“Camping was $50," Kelly said. "I mean, if you’re just starting out, nets are expensive. Ten bags of ice is $35.”

They also have to pay the City of Kenai to use the facilities at the fishery: $20 for day parking and more than twice that for overnight parking.

That’s because it’s expensive to run the fishery, too.

“And then those fees are what we utilize to offset our costs in putting on the fishery," said Kenai Finance Director Terry Eubank.

The City of Kenai runs the dipnet sites on North Beach, South Beach and at the City Dock. Eubank said the biggest cost for the city are the dumpsters and toilets on the beaches.

Other than that, he said, it’s personnel — between 15 and 20 employees dedicated fully to the dipnet fishery for the three weeks it’s open in July.

It all costs about $450,000. But without any large-scale infrastructure projects or new equipment, the city can actually bring in more than it spends. 

Last year, in what Eubank said was a good year for business, Kenai brought in over $520,000 in revenue.

But there is a variable the city can’t control or predict: the strength of the salmon run. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed the Kenai dipnet fishery twice that Eubank can remember.

“The point is, is we go through a substantial amount of costs on the front end to get this thing set up, to get people under contract to do all of these things," he said. "And then when Fish and Game, who’s trying to protect the resource, shuts that fishery down and we don’t get the revenue from that parking and things, we can lose a substantial amount of money.”

That’s partially where the personal use fishery fund comes in. It’s a reserve that the city’s had for about five years, and Eubank said it’s a sort of insurance policy: If the fishery gets shut down, the city has money stored up to spot those up-front costs without dipping into taxpayer dollars. The fund has about $250,000 in it now.

A chunk of the revenue the city brings in from the fishery goes to that reserve. The city will also transfer some of its revenue into its general fund.

“The way I view it is a dividend back to the community for what we endure and what we have to do," Eubank said. "Like I said, this wasn’t a fishery that we put in place, that we asked for. It was kind of dropped in our lap by the state. And so it gives us the ability to give a little bit back to the citizens. This year, that amount is budgeted to be $75,000.” 

This year, the first weekend of the fishery, the city brought in $27,000. The next two weekends — at the peak of the run — will be even better.

That’s also when Alaska anglers will fill local businesses.

“I am terrified about being able to meet the demand this year," said Duane Bannock, one of the managers at Louie’s Restaurant in Kenai.

Bannock said this summer has alreadybeen busy for business, with lots of tourists from out of state. And he expects the next two weekends will be packed, as anglers from Anchorage and the Mat-Su drive down for the height of the run.

He said he loves to hear the cash register sing. But it’s also a bit intimidating, amid labor shortages and higher food costs.

"The restaurant will be full, there will be long lines for a wait for a table, and we sadly will likely have more customers that want to do business with us than we will able to do business with," he said.

The Alaska Wildlife Troopers also stay busy in July. Soldotna Lieutenant Christopher Jaime said they bring in six additional personnel to help at the fishery when the run’s at its peak.

They’re looking for anglers who are violating regulations — most often, the failure to log the salmon they catch. That’s a $120 charge.

Tickets range from $95 on the low end to $520 on the high end. Fees all go into the state’s general fund.

Back on the beach, Kelly Williams is mulling the effects of dipnetting on her own account.

Some Alaskans use the Kenai personal use fishery as a subsistence fishery, to fill their freezers with salmon for the year.

But is it more economical to dipnet than to buy salmon … from the store?

“I mean that’s the thing, you don’t know," Kelly said. "Like, Sagaya will be like, ‘Oh, it’s that much a pound.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s probably cheaper than getting it yourself.’”

But what’s the fun in that?

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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