Homer salmon tournament boosts local economy amid uncertain future for Kenai kings

a man and a fish
This year’s first-place Homer Winter King Salmon Tournament winner, Gail Bilyeu, (center) holds up his 26.12-pound catch surrounded by his boat crew. His total winnings, including side tournaments, were over $62,000. (Corinne Smith/KBBI)

A crowd of onlookers gathered onshore Saturday as dozens of boats streamed past into the Homer Harbor to weigh in their catch.

Some yelled, “Show us your catch!” and anglers laughed and obliged, holding up their fish to the crowd.

The top ten kings displayed during the award ceremony. (Corinne Smith/KBBI)

Homer’s Winter King Salmon Tournament has seen record participation in recent years. This year, the event was postponed one week due to winter weather, but still drew 818 participants and 273 boats from all over the state for one day of king salmon fishing on Kachemak Bay, and a chance at nearly $200,000 in tournament prizes.

The top 10 biggest kings were displayed on hooks before a large crowd, silver skin glistening in the sun, and the winner was announced at 26.12 pounds.

“Total winnings of the first-place prize, $62,036.75, goes to Gail Bilyeu!” said an announcer. “Congratulations, this is your champion!”

Another winner was the City of Homer, which got a much needed economic boost at a time when Cook Inlet king salmon runs are in decline.

Brad Anderson is executive director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce, which hosts the annual tournament. He said the economic impact for the town is huge.

“Typically, it’s a very slow time of the year. And typically this event fills up all of our local hotels, so it’s a great opportunity,” Anderson said. “The last time we did our survey, I believe about 60% coming out here were staying [in hotels]. They weren’t local. So it’s exciting to see that impact.”

Boats coming into the Homer harbor. (Corinne Smith/KBBI)

Last year, the winner took home over $82,000 with total tournament winnings. With over a thousand anglers participating, the cash prizes totalled over $200,000. With more registrants, and side tournaments, the winnings increase. This year, the total tournament prizes were estimated at over $132,000, along with merchandise prizes of over $32,000.

Gunnar Knapp is a retired University of Alaska Anchorage economist who has studied Alaska salmon fisheries for decades. Though difficult to quantify, he said sport fishing has multiplying impacts for local economies.

“In general, sport fisheries, and including things such as a big fishing tournament, have a really dramatic economic impact, in terms of spending and income and jobs created, in the community or in the region,” Knapp said.

Knapp points to spending on fishing guides, lodging, restaurants and local stores as boosting local businesses and tourism opportunities. In addition, he said sport fishing can attract people to live or retire in fishing communities around the Kenai Peninsula.

people and fish
Second-place winners were cousins Alivia Erickson (left) and 8-year-old Elyanna Tutt of Homer, who caught a 23.26-pound king and took home over $22,000. (Corinne Smith/KBBI)

“It’s not just the money that is created in all these different businesses where people engage in sport fishing and spend money,” Knapp said. “It’s also that for a huge number of Alaskans, sport fishing is a big part of their life. That’s a big part of what they enjoy.”

Knapp said it doesn’t just contribute to local tax revenue. In general, people often relocate or retire and create a quality of life centered around a unique resource like salmon fisheries.

“If you’ve got a good quality of life because you’ve got fun things to do like sport fishing, that helps deal with one of the major economic problems that we have in Alaska and actually, across the country, which is just a labor shortage,” Knapp said. “It’s sort of hard to find cops, it’s hard to find teachers, it’s hard to find restaurant workers, and so on. And so sport fishing is part of what you might generally call the quality of life. And quality of life really matters if you’re going to get people who will live in a community and take jobs in that community.”

While derby participants were successful on Kachemak Bay, other Kenai King salmon runs haven’t been doing well. This year, the Cook Inlet king salmon fishery is being closely watched, as declining runs and low harvest projections triggered state fisheries managers to close the king sport fishery on the Kenai Peninsula earlier this month.

a crowd at a harbor
“Show us your catch!” (Corinne Smith/KBBI)

Matt Miller is a Cook Inlet sport fisheries manager with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He said king salmon stocks across the state have been doing poorly and Cook Inlet is no exception.

“We’ve been doing restrictions in season and preseason for the last several years going back ten years in some of these systems,” Miller said. “And there’s no easy decisions when it comes to closing these fisheries. But we take the responsibility to manage these resources pretty seriously.”

But Miller said the ocean Cook Inlet king salmon — those fish caught in the tournament — are part of a mixed stock. That means those king salmon return to spawn all over coastal Alaska and British Columbia, not necessarily to the Kenai Peninsula rivers, though some do.

“Some of those fish are adult fish maturing and bound for Cook Inlet streams. And some of them are younger fish that are still growing, and are going to return to other systems outside of Cook Inlet,” he said.

Miller said it’s a good sign that anglers did well in Saturday’s tournament, weighing in over one hundred kings in a single day. But it doesn’t necessarily reflect the health or sustainability of the local king salmon stocks.

Knapp — the economist — said the closed king salmon sport fisheries will certainly have an economic impact for the Kenai Peninsula this summer — though again, it’s difficult to quantify. He said the last statewide study of Alaska sport fisheries was in 2007. And with all the uncertainty about the fisheries’ future, he said the region could benefit from an updated study on local economic impacts.

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