Alaska’s fishing charters come of age

… And experience the growing pains of competition and outgrown facilities.

Anchorage insurance salesman Ron Sayer loves to fish. Every summer, Sayer and his father Drew, from Salmon, Ida., visit Homer, the self-proclaimed Halibut Fishing Capital of the World, to search for the lunkers that lurk on the bottom of lower Cook Inlet. This year they caught a whale.

“I knew it was a big fish when my dad caught it,” Ron Sayer says. “He’s 76, you know, and it was too much for him, so he passed the rod over to me. We’ve caught halibut before, but never anything like this.”

Whale is fish jargon for really big halibut. The Sayers’ whale weighed in at 307 pounds on the scales of Silver Fox Charters, a longtime saltwater guiding outfit on the Homer Spit.

A whopper by any measure, Sayer’s trophy halibut was among the largest flat sides landed on sporting gear in Alaska this summer. And had the Sayers purchased a $5 Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby ticket before leaving the dock, they could have won thousands in cash as well. The 1991 derby winner, Lonni Crum of Anchorage, claimed the $18,434 jackpot with a 304.75-pound halibut.

Alaska’s unrivaled fishing opportunities play an important part in the vacation plans of many of the 500,000 people who come to the state each summer, according to the state’s Division of Tourism. A large number of these vacationers find their fishing adventure aboard the rolling decks of one of the state’s 500-plus charter boats.

But the part played by the charter industry in the state’s tourism economy is not well understood, largely because tourism officials have never studied it. No one knows, for example, how many people actually take fishing charters in Alaska or the industry’s worth.

“We don’t have the level of knowledge on the charter industry that we would like,” says Pete Carlson, development specialist with the state Division of Tourism. “There’s probably a lot of people who take charters that come to Alaska on tours, cruise ships and the like. People visiting relatives and friends in Alaska, and Alaska residents also are a large part of the charters’ business.”

While statistics on the charter industry remain as elusive as this summer’s king salmon run on the Kenai River, what is clear is that the charter fishing industry is growing. “It’s like any business opportunity, you can’t keep it a secret,” says Douglas Coughenower, an agent of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program who keeps tabs on Homer’s charter fishingindustry.

Taking to Water. Coughenower estimates that since he last surveyed the industry in 1986, more than 30 new charter boats have come to Homer, bringing the total to more than 100 vessels. Seward, Valdez and Ketchikan also report increases in the number of charter companies. More than 500 charter vessels operate statewide, Coughenower estimates.

“There’s definitely been a dramatic increase in the number of fishing charters here,” says Margery Hanger, owner of Ketchikan Marketing and Management, a family-run enterprise that books sportfishing charters for the many cruise ships that visit the state’s southernmost city. Ketchikan bills itself as both the Charter Capital of the World and Alaska’s Sportfishing Capital.

In 1987, Ketchikan Marketing booked 4,000 cruise-ship passengers on charter fishing trips. That number doubled this year. More than doubled are the number of charter boats in the Ketchikan area, from some 78 boats in 1987 to almost 200 in 1991, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Ketchikan.

The growth has not come overnight. The first charter fishing operations sprouted in the 1970s from local boat owners taking friends out for a day of fishing in nearby waters. Others evolved from water taxis and hunting charters. More charter businesses were started as access to coastal communities improved and as tourism began to flourish. But growth was slow, tempered by a high turnover rate as new charter businesses replaced unprofitable ones.

The 1980s marked the first real period of sustained growth for Alaska’s fledgling charter fishingindustry. Turnover lessened and competition increased as growing tourism supplied a steadily increasing flow of customers. As one might expect, prices for charters went up, but customers were treated to better service, operators say.

“When I came here in 1983, the charters didn’t offer anything extra,” says Dan Gorum, co-owner of Deep Sea Charters in Homer. “There was no coffee aboard. You brought your own lunch. Filleting of fish cost extra, so did ice. You were lucky to have someone aboard to bait your hook and help you land the fish.”

Gorum, a 23-year charter operator, came to Alaska from Westport, Wash., where he captained charters until catch restrictions forced him to look north for more fertile fishing grounds. Great fishingexisted in Alaska, all right, Gorum says. But lacking was a professional charter industry. Over the years, Gorum and others, from both Alaska and Outside, have worked to change the way Alaska fishing charters do business.

“It’s gotten very professional over the years,” Gorum says. “We were the first to have an 800 telephone number. Now a lot of the charters have them. A lot of us now include filleting. I have two deckhands. And I always have a pot of coffee on the stove, pastries on the table and a clean rest room. You have to give people a good deal.”

Charter fishermen have organized themselves, too. Homer, Seward, Valdez and Ketchikan all have active charter associations, although they do not yet wield much political power.

Still, chartering is a seasonal job for most operators, explains Stan Stephens, a Valdez-based sightseeing charter operator and former charter fishing guide. Stephens is vice president of government relations for the Alaska Visitors Association and a board member of the Alaska Tourism Marketing Council and of the Prince William Sound Tourism Coalition.

“I’d guess that 75 percent of the people do other things besides charter,” says Stephens. “It’s pretty hard to make a year’s living on 65 days of chartering.”

Growth Spurt. Breakneck growth in the Alaska charter fishing industry came only recently, ironically the result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Dozens of boats, lured from throughout Alaska and Outside, sailed to Southcentral Alaska to help with the cleanup.

Many, such as longtime Seward residents Karl and Kim Hughes who leased their herring skiff to the cleanup, made enough money to buy a much larger boat and launch a charter business. They own and operate Aurora Charters in Seward, which operated its initial summer of business in 1991.

“Before the spill came along, Karl’s dream was to get a bigger boat,” Kim Hughes says. “The spill gave us a chance to get started in this business.”

Some say this latest round of growth, fueled by the oil spill, was too much too fast. Gregg Parsley, who until recently operated a charter boat in Homer, blames big money offered by Exxon for the increase in charter boats. Parsley now is president of Shearwater Manufacturing, a Homer-based Hovercraft development firm, founded on money made from the spill cleanup.

“A lot of people bought boats,” Parsley says. “There must be 500 seats on charters in Homer now. But we don’t get that many people on a good day.”

Geri Martin, co-owner and office manager of North Country Halibut Charters in Homer, agrees. “There are so many boats here,” says Martin. “People are opening up new charter businesses everywhere. The competition is good, but we’ve reached the saturation point here.”

Despite a record number of visitors to Alaska this summer, many fishing charters say their business has been slow. Operators blame the recession in the Lower 48 for reducing the flow of middle-income clients, the group most likely to book fishing charters. Also a factor, operators say, is the dramatic increase in sightseeing tour boats, attractive to visitors who can afford one saltwater trip, but not two.

“There are plenty of tourists around town,” Kim Hughes said in July, glancing out the window of Aurora Charter’s small office on the Seward waterfront. Across the dock, a long line of tourists waited to board a Kenai Fjords Tours Inc. boat for a day of sightseeing in the Kenai Fjords National Park. “You’ll notice they are nearly always full,” Hughes pointed out.

Some operators on the Kenai Peninsula fix blame for the slow season on the catch-and-release restrictions on king salmon caught in the Kenai River. Many who venture to the Kenai Peninsula combine king salmon fishing on the river with a halibut charter in Homer.

The restrictions at the beginning of summer discouraged anglers from traveling to the Kenai, and slowed to a trickle the flow of tourists to Homer. The result: too many charters vying for a shrinking customer pie. Bud Ingram, who operates Land’s End Marine, one of Homer’s oldest charter businesses, had time to go clamming.

It’s possible that the problem of too few customers is not so much the result of too many charters, but of too little marketing. Alaska’s tourism budget has dropped markedly in recent years, and was slashed again this year. And state-sponsored ads do not specifically promote charters in national and international ad campaigns.

“The small charter operator has to depend on generic advertising paid for by the state and the large tour companies to attract people to Alaska,” Stephens says. “They don’t have the dollars to take out ads in Germany, France and Japan.”

Poor marketing or not, competition likely will sort out the overabundance of charter operators, and customers will again book fishing trips as the nation’s economy improves. Still, there remain problems to solve if the charter industry is to achieve long-term growth. Chief among them is a shortage of moorage space for boats and dockside office space.

Space Shortage. “The room along the harbor isn’t conducive to more charters,” says John Sheedy, owner of Mariah Charters in Seward. “There’s no place for buildings. Slips for boats are another problem. The waiting list is years long.”

In fact, the wait is eight years, according to Foster Singleton, the harbormaster in Seward. More than 600 people, owners of all types of recreational and commercial vessels — including persons interested in starting charter fishing businesses — are on the waiting list. The existing harbor, with its 550 stalls, is overcrowded.

“I don’t use the word overcrowded. That is too obvious,” Singleton says. “What I have is an aging facility that is overstressed.”

Similar waiting lists exist in every other major ocean-side community. To correct the problem, several cities either are planning additions or have begun to expand their small-boat harbors.

Kodiak has requested $10 million in first-phase construction funds from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a rock breakwater at St. Herman Boat Harbor on Near Island. The upgrade, when complete in 1995 at a cost of $26 million, will add up to 400 new stalls, according to Corky McCorkle, Kodiak harbormaster. The harbor will serve the commercial fishing industry and a growing number of charter boats.

Ketchikan also is eyeing sites for a new small-boat harbor. Two sites are on hold at the moment: one for lack of money, the other landlocked until environmental concerns are cleared up.

Seward, too, has expansion plans. It has spent $100,000 to study the feasibility of a wooden, semipermeable breakwater. A breakwater would create additional space in the existing harbor. It also would provide moorage for a new 250-foot ocean research vessel proposed by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The nation’s first ice-capable research vessel would replace the R/V Alpha Helix whose home port now is UAF’s Seward Marine Center.

Seward also is considering construction of a new harbor on the east side of Resurrection Bay. The harbor would have stalls for 1,400 vessels and would cost an estimated $30 million. That project likely will take longer than the breakwater to complete. “Money is the big problem,” Singleton notes.

Although surprised by the recent crush of entrants into the charter fishing industry and hampered by a lack of dockside facilities, charter operators and harbormasters expect the industry will experience more even-keeled growth through the rest of this century. About the only remaining factor limiting the growth of the industry is the health of the fish stocks.

At the moment, salmon and halibut populations are thriving, fisheries managers say. Which only means that other whales, even bigger than the one landed by Ron and Drew Sayer, are out there, somewhere, waiting to be caught by some lucky charter angler.

Douglas Schneider is a science writer with the Alaska Sea Grant College Program, School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, University of Alaska Fairbanks.