ECON 919 - Fishing fallout from the Swan Lake fire

Nov 15, 2019


This week, continuing to unpack the full costs of the Swan Lake Fire. Senator Peter Micciche got a meeting together this week with officials from an alphabet soup of local, state and federal agencies. They talked about how the plan to fight, or not fight the fire, unfolded and how those plans changed as conditions on the ground changed, or, didn’t change. It took months for fire dousing rains to return to the Kenai this fall. And until they did, a number of businesses that rely on access to the Kenai river, either directly or indirectly, suffered.



Among the state officials at Wednesday’s meeting was the new director of the state Division of Parks, Ricky Gease. He explained how commercial guides up and down the Kenai were affected.

“It wasn’t just the businesses that were impacted that use the upper river. It was also the businesses that use the lower river and the middle river for fishing, primarily. The road closures, many of the folks while they are out of state clients, we have a lot of in state clients. People would be listening to the news, hearing road closures and they just didn’t want to take the chance of being stuck on one side or the other. That’s what we’ve heard, is that businesses that operate within the Kenai River Special Management Area, whether they’re on the lower, middle or upper river were impacted. So it’s not just the businesses in Cooper Landing that were impacted.”


The road and river closures prompted some guides to look for other areas to fish, but permitting issues came into play, Gease says.

Gease: “One of the issues that we heard was that while they may have had a commercial use within the Kenai River Special Management Area, they were also then trying to get commercial use for other areas within Forest Service (jurisdiction) or within the (Kenai National Wildlife) Refuge. Where else can I take clients? Can we go up to Kenai Lake? One of the issues we were looking at is motorboats; can they go up into Kenai Lake so that there won’t be the public safety issue if a road opens up or closes. Those are things, as we move forward, we’d like to put on the agenda; commercial use permits in emergency situations, can areas be open up for activity where somebody may not have a commercial use permit.”

Commercial fishing guides weren’t the only operations hampered by the fire, however, those closures on the river didn’t translate to better numbers for the drift and setnet fleets in the Central District. The 1.8 million mostly Kenai and Kasilf-bound salmon harvested in Cook Inlet were still barely more than half the ten year average. Out of the water, too, trappers had a different set of concerns.

“We talked about trap lines, including trap lines for businesses. If there are planned closures in advance, if those businesses had 4-6 hours notice if a road closure is going to go into effect, then they can pivot and go to different locations for day activities.”

According to the government agencies that fought the fire, the total cost on that end was just short of $49 million. The full economic costs, though, are a bit harder to pin down. Gease says the real damage occurred in a relatively brief time frame, but in fishing, that can mean the loss of basically the whole season.

“These businesses have been impacted, anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of their business income. Especially in August, I think there’s a six week window in which these businesses were really impacted. How do they follow up if they need economic assistance.”

The first stop for that is probably the federal Small Business Administration. When Governor Mike Dunleavy declared the Swan Lake Fire a disaster in June, it made loans available through the SBA of up to $2 million for businesses that qualify. The deadline to apply for those loans is July 8th of 2020.

Now time for this week’s number: 50, as in years. November 4th was the 50th anniversary of the first LNG exports out of Nikiski to Japan. Deliveries from the plant in Nikiski almost made the half century mark, having shut down operations including exports back in 2015.