Guided and Non-Guided Angler Trends in Cook Inlet Sport Fisheries since 2007

Alaska is home to some of the world’s finest and most diverse sport fisheries. The Kenai River and Cook Inlet have long been famous for providing anglers with a wealth of opportunities – freshwater and saltwater, guided and non-guided, resident and non-resident – for a myriad of species including kings, reds, silvers, pinks, rainbows, Dollies, halibut, lingcod and rockfish.

The bulk of angler activity in Alaska occurs in the Cook Inlet region; the Kenai River is the most popular destination for the state’s sport and personal use fisheries. The money spent by resident and non-resident anglers produces significant economic benefits. According to the 2007 report by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG), Economic Impacts and Contributions of Sportfishing in Alaska, anglers generate $1.4 billion in economic activity in the state, with roughly half that, $733 million, occurring in Cook Inlet.

In terms of a value added industry, guided sportfishing packs a powerful punch for the economy. In 2007, guided anglers generated close to 60 percent ($640 million) in economic activity with one quarter of the total angler days (about 600,000 of a total 2.5 million), while unguided anglers generated about 40 percent ($460 million) with three quarters of the total angler days. The average non-resident guided angler in Alaska spent about $770 per day, comparable to the $760 per trip (average stay of 8.8 days) the average visitor spent that year in the state.

Since 2007, declines in the availability of king salmon and halibut have produced shifts in guided and non-guided angler activity in Cook Inlet. These changes have motivated ADFG to update estimates for the total expenditures of sportfishing by anglers in Cook Inlet and the Southeast Alaska marine fishery. An updated report from ADFG on the average per day angler expenditures in expected to be conducted again in the near future.

Let’s look closer at the changing trends for guided and non-guided anglers in Cook Inlet.

The Kenai River king salmon fishery is world famous, voted by Field and Stream in 2004 as the number one angler experience in North America. In 2007, the number of fishing guides peaked on the Kenai River at 396 but has steadily dropped to 258 in 2015, a 35 percent decline. The number of motorized guide boats declined 40 percent, from 372 in 2007 to 226 in 2015, the fewest in more than two decades. Guided angler harvests of Kenai kings dropped from 8,560 fish in 2007 to 581 in 2014, a decline of 93 percent; similarly, non-guided angler harvests declined 93 percent from 9,470 kings to 720 over the same time.

Yet from 2007 to 2014 on the Kenai River there was an increase in both the number of guided and unguided anglers and angler days: in 2007, there were a total of 125,094 anglers and 410,319 angler days, compared to 133,074 anglers and 455,578 angler days in 2014. Guided anglers on the Kenai were around 28 percent of all anglers, and generated about 14 percent of the overall angler activity.

What shifted? Angler effort, both guided and non-guided, shifted from kings to reds, rainbows and silvers. Whereas in prior year’s bookings in May and June for early-run kings accounted for up to 40 percent of angler trips, much of that effort has now shifted to August and September for rainbows and silvers. July is still popular month to go fishing, but much of the angler effort in that month has shifted to reds and away from late-run kings.

For example, harvest of silvers on the Kenai by guided anglers has risen from 10,312 to 14,896 (44 percent increase) from 2007 to 2014, while non-guided harvests rose 42 percent from 27,705 to 39,546 fish.

While harvests of reds has remained flat at about 54,000 at the Russian River, both unguided and guided activity rose significantly below Skilak Lake in the middle and lower Kenai. Unguided harvests of sockeye rose 17 percent from 250,068 to 293,421 (2007 – 2014); guided angler harvests of reds increased 131 percent from 16,620 to 38,501 during that same time.

Changes can be seen in the guide data for the Kenai River. Earlier we noted the 40 percent decline in the number of motorized guide boats on the Kenai, related to the steep decline in king salmon fishing. However, there has been a 100 percent increase in the number of guided drift boats, from 53 to 106 during the same period, much of it concentrated in the middle river between Skilak Lake and Bings Landing.

So for the Kenai River fisheries, from 2007 to 2014 there has been a 35 percent decline in the number of guides. Yet there has been modest increases in the number of overall anglers and angler days, with a shift from the popular king salmon fisheries in May – July to sport fisheries that focus more on reds, rainbows and silvers from July – September.

What are the trends for the Cook Inlet saltwater fisheries, in light of declines in the availability of halibut for guided anglers? Perhaps not surprisingly they are similar to the trend decline in the Kenai king salmon fisheries, with decreases in guided activity and shifts in angler behavior.

The Cook Inlet salt water sport fisheries, operating primarily out of Homer, Anchor Point, Deep Creek and Ninilchik, support the largest halibut fishery for anglers in the world. In 2007, guided anglers accounted for 65 percent of the anglers and 49 percent of the angler days (72,066 and 92,021 respectively); in 2014, the number of guided anglers dropped 22 percent to 56,093, fishing one quarter fewer angler days at 67,327. In contrast, the number of unguided anglers showed a modest 8 percent increase from 2007 to 2014, from 37,705 to 40,747, fishing 5 percent more angler days from 96,483 to 101,895 during that time.

What has changed to influence the disparities between guided and non-guided angler activity in the Cook Inlet salt water fisheries? Primarily the introduction of a differential change in the bag limit for halibut by guided and non-guided anglers. Bag limits for charter anglers are now constrained by the Halibut Catch Share Plan (CSP) instituted by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) in response to declines in overall harvest availability of halibut. For the 2016 season, there is now a four fish annual limit of halibut for charter anglers, no guided fishing on Wednesdays, and only single trips per day for charter vessels. Non-guided anglers remain at the traditional two fish per day bag limit with no annual limit.

King salmon and halibut are the iconic species that draw the attention of guided and non-guided anglers on the Kenai River and Cook Inlet. Both fisheries are world famous and draw the attention of anglers from near and far. Declines in available fish for harvest of both kings and halibut have triggered changes in both guided and non-guided angler activity. These changes in fishing behavior have ripple effects in the Cook Inlet economy. Angler activity has shifted for species, timing, and spending.

The upcoming ADFG survey of Cook Inlet angler expenditures is an important economic baseline data point. The new information will measure how shifts in angler activity by species, timing, and spending impact economic expenditures within Cook Inlet. Angler behavior may adjust to changes in access and opportunity through time – accordingly, it is important to measure these shifts in angler behavior and spending through survey-based processes that are updated periodically at a reasonable cost.