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By BILLY SINGLETON
Daily News Staff Writer
With 2018's king salmon catch restriction regulations the most serious in Southeast Alaska history, Ketchikan's guided sport industry is bracing for a difficult season.
This year's king restrictions span all user groups, not just sport fishing. The regulations are an attempt to conserve the health and population of wild king stocks in response to ongoing poor returns for the species throughout Southeast Alaska.
For many charter businesses, the question is not whether the regulations will affect business, but by how much.
“Everyone of course thinks that it's going to be really detrimental, and I think that it will be. But it's really hard to say how much,” said Russell Thomas, who operates a group of fishing lodges in the Ketchikan area. “... A lot of [customers] will probably come this year still. But a lot will then not want to book next year, knowing that's what the regulations are going to be.”
Thomas said that some groups of potential customers have lost interest in booking trips with his businesses following the release of the latest regulations.
Regionwide regulations announced by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on April 3 include nonresident annual sport limits of three king salmon of 28 inches or greater from Jan. 1 to June 30, and one king salmon of 28 inches or greater from July 1 to Dec. 31. Kings caught during the former period carry over and count toward the limit of the latter.
All of the inside waters of Southeast Alaska are closed to king salmon retention by sport anglers from April 1 to June 14. In the Ketchikan area, the north and northeast Behm Canal areas are closed to salmon fishing year round, and the West and southeast Behm Canals, along with an area of southern Revilla Channel, are closed to king salmon retention from April 1 to Aug. 14.
Clay Slanaker, who owns a local charter business, said that in addition to the early season all-out ban, he also sees the one-king annual limit as a major obstacle for charter operators.
“Who wants to spend ... $600 to $1,000 on airfare, and then get on a boat at $350 a hit or more, to go on a charter and then pay for lodging?” Slanaker said. “You're talking thousands of dollars to have the opportunity to catch one king salmon. And that doesn't add up in a lot of people's pocket books.”
Though much of our knowledge of the regulations' potential effects is limited to conjecture, some effects are already clear. In February, the announcement came that the 2018 Ketchikan CHARR King Salmon Derby, which would have been the Ketchikan's 71st, would be replaced with a coho salmon derby in August and September.
Michael Troina, an owner of Knudsen Cove Marina, said that losing the salmon derby would likely hurt his business.
“Memorial day weekend is one of our busiest weekend with all the locals fishing the derby,” Troina said. “… I'm sure we'll see a drop in fuel sales, a drop in our tackle sales, in our convenience stores — things like that.”
According to Samantha Weinstein, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization, the guided sport industry is employing a number of creative strategies to deal with the potential blow. Some charter operators have considered taking customers catch-and-release fishing or incorporating wildlife viewing elements into their businesses. Utilizing terminal harvest areas (which contain mostly hatchery fish) and fishing for other species are tried-and-true practices.
But according to some charter operators, these alternatives have their limits.
“The guys that have halibut permits, we can target halibut — which adds extra pressure to the halibut stocks.” Slanaker said. “If [charter operators] don't have a halibut card, they're going to lose a lot of business by telling people that they can't retain king salmon [either].”
Local fishing lodges, including those operated by Thomas, are emphasizing coho fishing and have taken to booking clients later in the year in anticipation of unpredictable regulatory changes.
Despite the regulations' short-term detriment to the industry, many of those involved in it — including every source the Daily News spoke with for this story — seem to believe that the regulations are a necessary part of protecting wild king stocks.
“Operators understand the importance of putting the fish first,” Weinstein said in an email. “We're well aware that one thing we as an industry can do right now to help sustain and grow our king salmon populations is restrict harvest, and it's a worthwhile price to pay. Every fish makes a difference right now.”