Collapsing king salmon runs have been causing some Kenai Peninsula businesses, including guide services, bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants, to suffer through their worst season in decades.
While the effects of the king collapse have been felt statewide, on the Kenai there has been one saving grace: fellow Alaskans, dipnetters who have been driving down to the peninsula from places like Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley.
They're being drawn to the Kenai by an excellent sockeye salmon run. Even though king salmon runs have collapsed, the sockeyes’ return is at near-record levels. An estimated 4.6 million sockeye are returning this year, and fishermen have permission to catch about 3 million of them.
Not everyone is enamored of the Dipnetters. Some people complain that they've been leaving the shore areas a mess after they gut the fish they catch.
But there's little doubt that their presence, in increased numbers, is a step in the right direction for the tourist component of the economy here.
The big run of sockeyes comes in the wake of a disastrous king salmon run on the Kenai River. Normally, wildlife officials want at least 18,000 Kenai kings to make it back to their spawning grounds to breed; this year, only 9,000 have shown up so far.
The effect has been greatest on 400 Set Netters here -- approximately 85% of whom are locals. Their catch of Kings has essentially dropped to zero this year, and many are struggling to make a living. They have been appealing to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to make some new provision in the fishing rules.
Before the summer is over, an estimated 12,000 kings will find their way back to the streams where they were hatched -- an 80 percent drop from the 70,000 kings the river sees in good years.
Those low returns are a big problem for Kenai Peninsula residents. The low returns have prompted the king salmon fishery’s closure for the season, due to fears that if fishermen are permitted to catch kings, there will not be enough of them to reproduce and ensure healthy future runs.
In the meantime, the king closure has devastated portions of the economy. One lodge reported a 28 percent drop in business in June. Other businesses, such as guide services, bed and breakfasts and restaurants have seen even bigger declines.
But Kenai City Manager Rick Koch (pronounced Cook) says that although some members of his community have been badly hurt -- namely the set-netters -- the king fishery represents a relatively small part of the economy in his city.
He says other Kenai Peninsula communities, like Homer, are being hit harder -- by lack of tourism. But that's largely due to a surge in gasoline prices earlier this year, which discouraged some tourists from coming to Alaska -- many of them driving those low-mileage camper-trucks.
Mr. Koch also says that because the energy industry is thriving, his city has actually seen a 3-to-5% boost in the overall economy this year. In addition, he says, food processors in his city are benefitting from an above average sockeye run. A run that is also helping drift-net fishermen who have been unusually busy in July.
What is still a mystery -- and the subject of much speculation -- is why the king runs have collapsed, not just on the Kenai Peninsula, but all over Alaska.
One of the most popular theories involves the issue of bycatch. Local fishermen say that foreign-owned factory trawlers patrol more than 200 miles from Alaska's shores. Their nets essentially "mine" the ocean and pick up everything, including fish like kings that they’re not licensed to sell commercially -- and simply throw away.
Joe Connors with the Big Sky Charter and Fish Camp says he's seen bycatch numbers, and they're very high. He believes they have has been contributing to the poor runs this year, and he would like see international treaties signed to see bycatch amounts reduced.
But Ricky Gease of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association sees things differently. He thinks bycatch contributes to the problem, but is only a part of it. According to Gease, a natural phenomenon called the Pacific decadal oscillation is to blame.
The oscillation is an upwelling of nutrients off the coast of Alaska that usually helps the kings each June. When cold water rises off the Alaska coast, it brings with it food from the deep ocean that feeds the kings as they return to the Kenai.
This year, however, the upwelling arrived in July and not June. That's bad news for the kings, because their food source on their long run back to their home rivers was missing. Many may have been weakened by their inability to feed properly during the return to Alaska.
As its name implies, the oscillation moves to and from Alaska’s coast over a period of decades; it’s now moved away again. The last time it moved away, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Kenai's fishery for kings collapsed -- just like it’s doing now. After the oscillation’s last departure, king populations didn’t rebound for more than five years.
No one knows if this episode of the Pacific decadal cycle will be that long -- but if it is, then the fishery may not recover until 2017 or later.
There’s also the possibility that the king collapse is the result of a combination of bycatch and the oscillation, as well as the chance that neither event is a factor in the collapse.
In the meantime, the economy on the Kenai continues to suffer. The hope is that the near-record run of sockeyes will help people here hold on -- at least until next year.
Email Dan Fiorucci