By Dylan Nedzwecky
“Back in the day when I was a kid you could almost walk on water on herring, there were so many of them from Knudson Cove all the way to Hole in the Wall.” says charter fisherman Clay Slanaker as he looks back on the glory days of fishing. “You could go jig herring then go fishing for boat loads of kings.”
The king salmon fishery has been the staple of Ketchikan, Alaska (aka The Salmon Capital of the World). Recent years however, the numbers of wild kings has drastically fallen.
Every year tens of thousands of locals and tourists would be out on the water every year in a battle to get one of Ketchikan’s most coveted entities. Although in recent years, with the low numbers, smaller fish, and the strict regulations, fishing for kings just isn’t the same anymore.
What is the reason for these phenomenons? Before jumping to one conclusion or another you have to take into consideration the biggest factor; the prey they are hunting.
Captain of the C/V Killin‘ Time Clay Slanaker has his share of reasons why this phenomenon is happening.
“The root of the problem is the size and quantity of the herring has been reduced majorly,” said Slanaker. “Back in the day the herring were so big, fish only needed to eat three or four herring to be full. Now you cut open a king salmon and it’ll have anywhere from 12-36 of those tiny herring.¨
What Slanaker is explaining is nowadays the kings have to do so much hunting just to eat a little bit. All that time on the attack is putting a toll on their bodies that is slowly stunting their growth.
The herring aren’t just by passing ketchikan, and they definitely aren’t just shrinking on their own.
Ex charter/commercial fishermen Rob Miller says the whales are mostly to blame for this problem.
“They quit whaling in 1966, while at that time we still had the sac roe herring industry,” said Miller. “The whales started making a comeback over time. They estimated 66 whales in the North Pacific when they stopped whaling, well now there are thousands upon thousands of them.¨
Herring is a primary resource for many marine animals around Southeast Alaska, including mammals. With the whales coming back along with all the other predators feasting on herring, there just hasn’t been enough food for the kings to eat.
The King Salmon Derby in Ketchikan is easily the biggest fishing event in Ketchikan. Thousands of adults and kids go out on Labor Day weekend, and two more weekends after that, and compete to catch the biggest fish and win the grand prize of $10,000.
The last time there was a King Salmon Derby winner was 2017. Since then, Fish and Game has cancelled the past four years, because the king salmon numbers are so low.
This would have been the first time in almost four years the beloved derby would be up and running. Unfortunately just days after announcing it, they withdrew their proposal due to “concern about low fish return.”
The Ketchikan CHARR derby coordinator, Michael Briggs, said they were ready to fulfil all the requests and bring the beloved tradition back.
“We’ve had a lot of people in the community that were hopeful that we could switch back to kings, and that we could get back to the tradition of having a king salmon derby the way we used to,” said Briggs.
Although just a day after they announced the reopening, Briggs received a call from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.
“They expressed some concerns with the idea of basically encouraging 1,000 boats across a couple of weekends to go out there and target king salmon,” Briggs said.
These are the same reasons the derby has been cancelled the years prior. There just aren that many kings out there, and the ones that just aren’t as big as they used to be.
The proof is right there. Even looking back two decades ago, the size of kings has slowly been declining.
From 2000-2006 the Winning fish never weighed less than 50 pounds, with the biggest one being 62.1 pounds in 2000. Besides the 48.6 pound anomaly caught in 2016, none of the recent 7 winners come close to even 45 pounds.
When you compare those numbers to the fish from the 1900s, it is not even a competition. The recent winners would not get you anywhere near top 30 back in the day.
That alone is enough for people to see that there is a real problem on our hands.
Business Side of the King Salmon
The King Salmon dilemma is a problem for everyone in a town that relies on subsistence living. It poses an even bigger threat for the men and women who rely on them to make a living
Captain of the C/V Chasin Tail Nick Hastings weighs in on the impact the lack of kings and closure has meant to him.
“I am not getting any king salmon charters in May anymore,” said Hastings. “Because of the lack of fish and the closure I cant start my king charters til June.”
It may not seem like that big of a deal, but the king salmon for the charter guys is a major part of their livelihood. Losing out on that prime king season puts a huge dent in their paychecks.
Just like Hastings, Slanaker is also enduring the hardships of the lackluster king salmon run.
“I used to do charters from the first of May all the way through, now it’s the first of June,” said Slanaker. “That’s at least thirty days taken off of a guy’s charter season.”
The loss of just one type of salmon seems like nothing, but it is a huge hit when you consider how many people come and pay to catch that specific fish. With the low number of kings and the regulations, there just isn’t as much business for the guys in that workforce anymore.
Will They Ever Recover?
Arguably the biggest question asked about the king salmon is: “Will the numbers ever bounce back?” For that to happen something is going to have to change.
Like many other fishermen, Slanaker has some very strong points.
“Our state Fish & Game and our governor should all be pushing back against the trawl fleet,” said Slanaker. “They are killing off a lot of our king salmon due to bycatch at an alarming rate.”
The “by catch” are fish such as king salmon and halibut. They are the fish that aren’t targeted but end up being caught and die due to their injuries.
“Without cutting back on the seining and the trawling I dont think it will ever bounce back ever. You just can’t have sustainability with net fisheries,” said Slanaker. “I have watched it go down year after year after year, it’s a sad story but a true story.”