“There really were days where you just threw a line out and caught as much as you needed,” says charter guide Skip Pattison, with the reflection of the ‘good old days’ showing in his eyes, “I’ll always treasure that I got to be around for that.”
Sport fishing in Ketchikan, Alaska, is like jazz music in New Orleans. It would be a crime not to go fishing in Ketchikan, better known as The Salmon Capital of the World.
The sport fishing industry in Ketchikan is huge, with an estimated 40,300 sport/charter fishermen, locals and non-residents, putting lines in the water each year in hopes of catching a fish. While it may sound more prosperous than ever now, the shocking reality is that returns in numbers of salmon in recent years have drastically decreased; so much, in fact, that King Salmon fishing is shut down through Clover Pass until June 15th.
Fish and Game employee Kirsten Baltz has noticed a shift in the mood around Knudson Cove, but is optimistic for the future of king fishing.
“There are definitely a lot of people that are bummed out about not being able to keep kings this year,” said Baltz, “but there are going to be even more people that are going to love the next couple years, when the kings are in full force.”
The decision by the Fish and Game caused controversy among the whole industry, made it a ‘who do we blame’ culture, and has affected tourism already.
“We take right around eight thousand people fishing every summer through our charter guys at the marina,” said Knudson Cove Co-Owner Linnaea Troina, “This year, there have been more cancellations than ever, because people off the ship find out that it’s catch and release fishing, and don’t have the opportunity to really catch ‘the big one.’”
Who is to blame for the decrease in salmon population? Many people point fingers in different directions.
“There have been changes in recent years that have let seiners go into areas they usually haven’t been allowed in,” said owner of Strike Zone Sportfishing Luke Stamm, “I was never with the idea of over fishing the channel in the first place, and I think we’re paying for the Fish and Game’s negligence now.”
“We can’t blame the seiners, because they’re only fishing where they were allowed,” said Captain of C/V Fish N’ Fun Tony Azure, “but should they have been allowed to in the first place, and how can we stop this from happening again?”
The one thing everyone agrees on is the certain increase in mortality. In a January article for KTOO Federal fisheries biologist Jim Murphy pondered the question.
“Is it happening in the first couple months, is it happening over winter, is it happening throughout their life?” said Murphy, “To know the scope of the problem is important.”
But no one knows for sure, and no one will know.
“The biggest problem I think we’re facing right now is that we’re pointing fingers in the first place,” said Azure, “There are definitely people to blame, but we need to find real numbers and real solutions.”
Forty percent. That’s the percent of fish that seiners caught in Ketchikan last year, compared to three percent, the amount of salmon caught by sport fishermen. The numbers themselves speak to a larger question; are the wrong people being punished?
“I wouldn’t call it a punishment, but I have had to take up work elsewhere because I don’t have as many charters as last year,” said Captain of C/V Dream Catcher Kevin Beck, “this time last year I was going out every day with guests to fish, this year, I get about four trips in a week if I’m lucky.”
“It hurts me and my personal income,” said Captain of the C/V Just Right Axel Svenson, “but the worst moment of this year by far was having to tell a guest he couldn’t keep his King that was well over thirty pounds.”
As a result of the king salmon cancellation, the 72nd CHARR King Salmon Derby was also cancelled. The derby usually takes place for three weekends, spanning from Memorial Day weekend to the second weekend in June, and has showcased some of the best fishermen over the years and rewarded their hard work.
When looking at the winning fish of the King Salmon Derby in the 2000’s, a decrease in big fish has became more and more apparent every year.
2000-62.1 lbs., 2001-59.7 lbs., 2002-53.3 lbs., 2003-55.2 lbs., 2004-51.9 lbs., 2005-50.7 lbs., 2006-55.1 lbs., 2007-47.6 lbs., 2008-50.2 lbs., 2009-42.8 lbs., 2010-41.2 lbs., 2011-44.7 lbs., 2012-43.1 lbs., 2013-42.0 lbs.,2014-42.0 lbs.,2015-40.3 lbs., 2016-48.6 lbs., 2017-43.7 lbs.
Skip Pattison, the captain of a boat that has caught three of those winners, and countless top five finishes in the derby, is concerned about the future of the derby.
“It’s not that the fish are shrinking out there, it’s that we’ve over-fished the area,” said Pattison, “More and more people come up every summer, and with the seiners being allowed to come through the last couple summers, it wiped out a lot of the young population of salmon that should have been growing to their fullest potential.”
Louise Pattison, wife of Skip, has been a runner up multiple times, seeing many family members, including her own daughter, finish right over her in the derby. In 2002, a year where ten forty plus pounders were caught in just the first weekend of fishing, Louise’s second top-3 finish, her 51.2 pound king was only good enough to finish third.
“It is pretty funny to think about that,” said Louise, when told she could’ve won any derby from 2007 to 2017 with that fish, “But that’s just how fishing is, that’s why people love it, it’s random and is a constantly changing game.”
The biggest question, however, through all the great stories and memories, is if the salmon will recover and bounce back.
“With less than five percent of the fish not being caught, my main concern is if the restriction will actually make an impact,” said Captain of the C/V 50/50 Andrew Meehan, “If we don’t take the correct measures now, then when will we realize it was too late and we fixed nothing?”