The 2018 fishing season didn’t leave many positives to look back on, and in fact, presented some new challenges. The borough assembly joined the city of Kenai and the city of Homer in requesting a formal disaster declaration for the 2018 salmon season, including commercial and sport fisheries and related businesses.
With an overall harvest just short of 1.3 million and an ex-vessel value of just $11 million, by any metric it was a historically bad year. Cook Inlet’s bread and butter commercial sockeye harvest was down 70 percent over the ten year average ending in 2018.
More than half of the sockeye return to the Kenai River occurred in August, that’s just the second time the run has been that late, based on modern records. And even for fishermen who had something to sell, challenges onshore added to the frustration.
David Chessik bases his fishing operation off the east shore of Kalgin Island. He told the assembly that not having regular access to the city dock in Kenai derailed plans at home and deliveries on shore.
"If you go from the west Forelands down through Kalgin Island, Harriet Point, Tuxedni Bay, Chisik Island, Silver Salmon, Chinitna Bay, those areas are remote. They don’t have infrastructure. We really rely on the cranes at the Kenai city dock. I get it. (The) city of Kenai runs those cranes, they don’t owe me anything. I’m not in their jurisdiction. But I have 170 acres over there and I pay a lot of property taxes and I don’t get any services whatsoever.”
Chessik says he doesn’t sell to the big three processors that operate in Cook Inlet, and so not having a predictable way to land his catch is a problem that trickles down to smaller operators.
“Everybody says that we want more secondary processing jobs here on the Kenai Peninsula. These guys are smoking fish and selling fish online all year who I sell to. We say we’re open for business, but the cranes are closed.”
For its part, the city of Kenai was wrestling with this issue back in April, when it learned Copper River Seafoods wouldn’t be the concessioner for the dock as it had been for the past two years. City manager Paul Ostrander said at the time it was unlikely to put a new contract together so close to the start of the season.
“We did not find that out until just a couple of weeks ago. I did reach out to several other potential operators and we’re going to follow up with them, so at this point we do not have a concessioner for this year. My concern, as I expressed to the Harbor Commission, is that we’re so late in the game that many of these canneries and other entities that could be interested already have their summer plans set.”
He said city staff could be available on an as-needed basis to man the dock and operate the cranes. Chessik says he’d like the borough and the city to get together to try and find a solution, or take a cue from Homer.
“Where you can get a slide care and as an independent fisherman or someone with property in a remote area, (and) go and pay by the hour to use the crane. To not have it open at all is a real hardship.”
Outgoing governor Bill Walker already made a disaster declaration for fishermen on the Chignik River on the Alaska Peninsula. Federal disaster relief funds were last appropriated to Cook Inlet fishermen in 2012 when king salmon returns took a nosedive across the state. That disaster also included chinook runs in the Yukokon-Kuskokwim region and $13 million in relief eventually made its way to Alaska
And keeping things pescatarian for this week’s number: 23.5 million, that’s pounds of pacific halibut caught this year between the U.S. Canadian fisheries. That still leaves a little room before hitting the quota for halibut, which has been a hot topic for debate this year.
Stocks were down again in 2018. One of the main culprits of the downturn is a four year stretch of low-productivity that began in 2006. Not only are overall numbers down from the good times in the late 90’s, but halibut are getting smaller. Some regions reported catch weights down by as much as 20 percent. New quotas are expected to be set by the International Pacific Halibut Commission in January.