When the 55th annual Seward Silver Salmon Derby gets under way at 6 a.m. Saturday, much will be familiar at Alaska's oldest fishing derby.
A chorus line of boats will line up at breakwater, ready to charge off once the opening gun is fired.
Anglers will lust for one of those fat 18-pound chromers that have graced filet tables at the dock this week.
Eager boat captains will vie to claim the $100 prize for the first fish turned in, which can happen as early as 6:30 a.m.
But challenges have come to the derby that dates back to 1956, and how organizers deal with them, will go far in determining whether Seward soars or stumbles into the future. Among them:
• Size. Not since Eagle River angler Renee James boated her 19.79-pounder in 2004 has a fish weighing at least 19 pounds won the derby. Shirley Baysinger's 22.24-pounder, caught in 2002, remains the biggest fish caught in the derby.
• Participation. With the derby start locked into the second Saturday of August, participation has dwindled as some children prepare for school, and a competing derby in Valdez -- which offers a popular women-only event the day Seward's derby begins -- draws anglers away from Resurrection Bay. The number of salmon turned in has dipped 36 percent since 2007 to 1,664 fish.
"It's a bit of a challenge in terms of participation," said Laura Cloward, executive director of the Seward Chamber of Commerce.
But perhaps the derby's largest challenge is ensuring a continuing supply of salmon returning to Resurrection Bay.
Each year, the bay sees a mixed stock of returning silvers -- both native fish and stocked fish. And for years, the Seward Chamber of Commerce purchased as many as 40,000 stocked fish from the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association to bolster the return.
Those purchases ended last year, mainly because of the rising price of smolt.
"It's a huge challenge," Cloward said. "Our enhancement efforts have been reduced."
When Seward celebrated its centennial in 2003, the chamber boosted the smolt release to 150,000 to mark the occasion. Back then, smolt cost about 10 cents apiece. Now they're five times as expensive.
"Our price-per-fish increased, without a parallel increase in funding," Cloward said. "I think we did a good job of maintaining as well as we did.
"We're trying to find a way ... to maintain a resource and sustain it. But we need help."
Cloward estimates about one-third of the Resurrection Bay fish are hatchery fish, but anglers venturing to the outer portions of the bay and beyond often intercept fish bound for Prince William Sound and other areas.
"It's kind of a staging area for feeding," she said. "Aialik Cape and the Chiswell Ridge (outside the bay in the Gulf of Alaska) contain tremendous supplies of baitfish."
Ultimately, the new $96 million William Jack Hernandez Hatchery, due to open in June on the north bank of Ship Creek, will offer enhanced fish-rearing capability. But silvers won't start coming out of the new hatchery until 2012.
Access to warm water at the new hatchery -- missing for state fish culturists now -- will allow state biologists to grow salmon twice as fast.
But as the 55th derby gets going, anglers care far more about the present than the future.
"Seems like from what I've seen, fishing has really been good," said Dan Bosch, the north gulf coast area management biologist for Fish and Game. "But anglers are having to work a little harder for it. It looks like it's going to be a pretty good derby."
Small angler, big fish
Ten-year-old Kelvin Cann of Fallon, Nev., caught a 19.1-pound silver salmon Tuesday aboard the boat Kittiwake to take the lead in the Valdez Silver Salmon Derby.
Last year, Chuck Gard's 19.42-pound silver -- the only 19-pounder entered -- won the derby. First place is worth $15,000 cash.
Reach reporter Mike Campbell at email@example.com or 257-4329.
By MIKE CAMPBELL