Memorial Day weekend was quieter than past years for several small towns in Southeast. Slumping king salmon numbers and a ban on sport fishing in inside waters drove Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan to cancel their annual king salmon derbies.
Friday morning was subdued at Petersburg’s North Harbor. By nine, the rain in the forecast had not yet arrived, and the low, grey clouds cast a sleepy glow over the docks. The harbor master’s office was seeing a little traffic – a couple of new boat owners and the usual crowd that comes in to drink coffee and talk fish politics.
Harbor Officer Ed Tagaban said some in Petersburg were getting ready to spend time on the water, despite the cancelled derby.
“The middle harbor’s totally full, the north harbor’s getting close to full capacity so a lot of people are still going to be going out and doing some kind of fishing in the areas,” Tagaban said.
But if this were a derby year, the office would be crammed with people trying to park their boats or weigh their fish. Participants in last year’s four day event caught 200 fish total.
“It would be people walking around getting their tickets validated, people getting donuts up there and going down and getting bait, and I’m sure the fuel dock would be totally bustling right now,” Tagaban said.
Petersburg resident Richard Carr has been fishing for 60 years. He said he supports the restrictions on king salmon fishing – he is actually worried they don’t reach far enough.
“These fish don’t always travel the same areas, so I think when they shut these things down everybody needs to be shut down – not just the portion around the river,” Carr said.
Carr also supports a rumored consolation prize for Petersburg. If not a king salmon derby, a contest for Coho salmon.
“That might be something that they could substitute until the kings come back,” Carr said.
A silver, or Coho, salmon derby would be held toward the end of the summer. It would mean a late season boost for local businesses like Hammer & Wikan, which supplies derby contestants with groceries, fishing licenses, bait, and gear. General Manager John Mason said he would know in a few days how much of a difference these events usually make in terms of sales.
“It won’t be a huge impact to our business overall as far as annually, but we are looking at somewhere between a 70 and 90 percent reduction in sporting goods purchases directly related to the derby,” Mason said.
But, as Tagaban said, people are still fishing this spring, and local businesses are still busy from that and tourism. Chamber of Commerce Administrator Mara Lutomski said the town’s seasonality has complicated plans to hold a Coho salmon derby later this summer. There are just not enough people available to make it happen.
“We did some advertising looking for chairmen; we called around and asked some people who we thought might be interested in doing such an event,” Lutomski said. “Unfortunately, we were turned down in all of those avenues, so we haven’t been able to get it up and running.”
The earlier king salmon run fits better with the schedules of volunteers.
“Coho derby being in August or even possibly being over Labor Day Weekend sounds overwhelming to someone who might want to volunteer, because they are so busy during the summer season,” Lutomski said.
Ketchikan and Wrangell will both host Coho derbies beginning mid-August and running through Labor Day. Lutomski said the “book isn’t closed” on the king salmon derby – the committee will resurrect it in future years if the fish come back in better numbers.