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Alaska Peninsula: where fishing is king.


The Alaska Peninsula is home to some the most copious natural resources and wildlife in the state. The peninsula stretches about 500 miles to the southwest from Alaska's mainland down to the Aleutian Islands, and separates the Pacific Ocean from Bristol Bay--the world-famous, easternmost arm of the Bering Sea. A number of rivers flow into the bay, including the Kvichak, Cinder, Egegik, Igushik, Meshik, Ushagak, Naknek, Togiak and Ugashik. These rivers support the largest run of sockeye salmon in the world, along with an abundance of king, silver, chum and pink salmon, and rainbow trout, Arctic char, grayling, northern pike, trout and Dolly Varden.

The Bristol Bay watersheds include several large pristine lakes, such as Lake Becherof and Lake Iliamna--one of only two lakes in the world supporting a resident population of freshwater seals. The area is also home to caribou, moose, bear and walrus, as well as small game such as beaver, porcupine, otter, fox and various waterfowl.

In terms of its landscape, the northern side of the Alaska Peninsula is flat and marshy, mainly due to years of erosion. The southern side is rugged and mountainous. A major mountain range--the Meutian Range--runs along the entire length of the peninsula. This highly active volcanic group of mountains extends from Chakachamna Lake, which is about 80 miles southwest of Anchorage, to Unimak Island, which sits at the tip of the peninsula. The peninsula is also home to Wood-Tikchick State Park, the largest state park in the country.

The Alaska Peninsula is organized as four boroughs: the Bristol Bay Borough --which was incorporated as the State's first borough in 1962--the Lake and Peninsula Borough, Kodiak Island Borough and Aleutians East Borough. The most populated communities in the Bristol Bay and Lake and Peninsula boroughs are Dillingham, Naknek, King Salmon and Nondalton.

Dillingham, with about 2,500 residents, is the service, transportation and retail center of Bristol Bay. Naknek, the seat of the Bristol Bay Borough, has a population of around 700. It has a seasonal economy as a service center for the huge red salmon fishery in Bristol Bay. King Salmon, with a population of about 500, is an important air transportation hub for Bristol Bay. Interestingly, King Salmon--which is located in the Bristol Bay Borough--is the seat of the Lake and Peninsula Borough. Nondalton is the largest city in the Lake and Peninsula Borough. Situated on the west shore of Six Mile Lake, it has about 220 residents.


The majority of the Alaska Peninsula's territory lies within the Lake and Peninsula Borough. The borough has a total area of about 30,900 square miles, about 23,800 of which is land. This makes the area larger than San Bernadino County, Calif., the largest county in the contiguous Lower 48. The borough has the distinction of being the second-least-densely populated organized "county" in the United States. Only Alaska's vast Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, which is unorganized, has a lower density.

The 2010 Census shows the borough's population shrank by 192 people, according to Alaska Department of Labor Economist Mali Abrahamson. Lake and Peninsula has the fourth-lowest population in the state, with 1,631 people in 2010. "Of the 16 census designated places or cities, all but four--Port Alsworth, Chignik City, Iliamna and Newhalen--lost population in the last decade," she said.

Like much of Southwest Alaska, communities in the Lake and Peninsula Borough rely heavily on a subsistence lifestyle. Local government is the main industry there. In 2009, it employed more than 50 percent or an average of 377 of the area's workers, Abrahamson said. Other top employers in the borough (ranked by number of workers) are Bristol Bay Area Health Corp., Iliamna Development Corp., Bristol Bay Native Association and Kokhanok Village Council.

The average unemployment rate for Lake and Peninsula in 2010 was 8.1 percent. Employment follows a seasonal pattern throughout the year, falling in the summer and rising in the winter. "The long-term trend isn't creeping up like some other Southwest areas; however, annual averages have hovered between 6 percent and 8 percent for the last 20 years," she said.

The Lake and Peninsula Borough experiences extreme seasonal shifts in employment, and although the 2009 annual average was 735, it can increase to more than 1,000 in peak summer months and drop below 600 in January. 'Jobs in seafood processing spike to more than 300 in July, but remain near zero for most of the year," Abrahamson said.

Commercial fishing and fish processing are major drivers of the borough's economy, with the area's fisheries based around sockeye salmon. In the past few years, salmon runs have been overall good, according to Lake and Peninsula Borough Mayor Glen Alsworth Sr. "They're faring well as far as the number of fish returning, but they're not faring as well as far as the price per pound," he said. "There are market issues that are not within in our fishermen's control."

Two years ago, so many fish crowded the area that they exceeded the amount processors could handle and fishermen were limited in the number of fish they could catch. "The loss of economic opportunity from the fishing limits had a negative impact on residents," Alsworth said.

The borough's commercial fishing season is extremely short and intense, with the major run of fish June 20 to July 15. "We have four or six weeks at most where it's incredibly busy," Alsworth said. During that time, the area experiences a large fluctuation in population, due to the spike in seasonal employment.

Alsworth says a growing number of the borough's commercial fishermen are not local residents, but people from outside the area buying permits and fishing during their summer vacations. However, sport fishing is still a big attraction--although fewer hunters are coming to the area. "The abundance of animals, such as moose and caribou, is not like it used to be," Alsworth said.


Leisure and hospitality is another important industry for the Lake and Peninsula Borough where tourism is steadily increasing. The borough is home to two national parks and preserves (Katmai and Lake Clark), Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, and two national wildlife refuges: Becharof National Wildlife Refuge and Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge. "Increasingly, there's been wildlife viewing, particularly bear viewing," Alsworth said. "People want to watch bears catch salmon in a natural environment."

The leisure and hospitality sector has seen considerable growth in summer employment, particularly in the last four or five years. Abrahamson credits the growth to park service staff and an increased number of private lodges and nature guide services. The tourism and fishing industries provide substantial support for the Lake and Peninsula Borough's tax base. Most of the borough's revenue comes from a 2 percent raw-fish tax. There also is a 6 percent hotel/motel room tax, and a tax on the harvest of certain natural resources within the borough. In addition, anyone who conducts guided activities in the area must purchase a guiding permit.


The borough takes a conservative approach to budgeting by practicing a "forward funding" method, which prevents adopting a general fund exceeding the general fund balance of the previous year-end. "From day one, we decided our borough would be funded based on what we had in the bank, not on what we expected to receive," Alsworth said.

The borough has established several funds to protect its schools and benefit the community, including a school endowment fund, permanent fund and capital improvement funds. A recent project in Kokhanok features two wind turbines and upgraded controls to the village's electric utility, enabling it to capitalize on new wind-diesel hybrid technology. "It may be the first such system that shuts the diesel generator off when the wind gets to a particular speed," Alsworth said. "We expect there will be incredible savings."

The TERRA-SW Hybrid Fiber Optic Microwave Broadband Network is another major project reaching into the area. GCI, through its wholly owned subsidiary United Utilities, is extending terrestrial broadband service for the first time to Bristol Bay and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Currently, no village in the region has access to broadband service (as defined by the Broadband Stimulus Act)--phone, television and Internet are delivered over high-cost, high-latency satellite connections. As part of the project, 22 communities in the Bristol Bay Region will receive new terrestrial-based telecommunications facilities, which GCI expects to begin offering service to in early 2012.

King Salmon at a Glance

Population: Approximately 500

Location: 280 air miles southwest of Anchorage

Main Industries: Local government, fishing, transportation, and hospitality and leisure

Government Structure: Assembly-manager form of government

Tax Base: 2 percent raw-fish tax, 6 percent bed tax

Hospital: Bristol Bay Area Health Corp. (in Dillingham)

Schools: University of Alaska Bristol Bay Campus (in Dillingham)
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Title Annotation:REGIONAL REVIEW
Comment:Alaska Peninsula: where fishing is king.(REGIONAL REVIEW)
Author:Barbour, Tracy
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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