Ferry Stikine in Ketchikan

The Inter-Island Ferry Authority ship Stikine sails to its Ketchikan terminal in 2008. It and its sister ship, the Prince of Wales, are carrying more passengers following a drop in ridership. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/ CoastAlaska News)

Southeast Alaska’s independent ferry system is working its way out of a ridership slump.

The Inter-Island Ferry Authority sails a daily round-trip route linking Hollis, on central Prince of Wales Island, and Ketchikan. The authority is separate from the Alaska Marine Highway System.

The service, which began 15 years ago, carried more than 50,000 passengers for its first nine years. Then the numbers started dropping by as much as 20 percent.

Dennis Watson is general manager of the Inter-Island Ferry Authority, as well as mayor of the city of Craig. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Dennis Watson is general manager of the Inter-Island Ferry Authority. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

General Manager Dennis Watson said they’re coming back up.

“Last year, we actually had a pretty good bump because we’d been kind of going downhill since the economic crisis a couple years ago. And things seem to be turning around,” he said.

He said predictions of good salmon runs make him optimistic for this year. The route is popular with commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen.

The ferry authority is a non-profit organization run by representatives of five Prince of Wales Island communities, plus Wrangell.

The authority’s $3.9 million budget for this fiscal year is funded largely by ticket sales, which provide about 85 percent of revenue. But it also gets money from the state and federal governments. Gov. Bill Walker’s capital budget includes $250,000 for the next fiscal year.

The authority has two nearly identical ferries, the Prince of Wales and the Stikine. They trade off on the route, allowing time for each to undergo maintenance and repairs without interrupting service.

Watson said that doesn’t always work. Earlier this month, a container van struck and damaged a door near water level. It wouldn’t close, which is required.

“We couldn’t go grab the other boat because we had just taken the safety gear off of it and sent it south. So, it didn’t do us any good to have two boats at that point. But we got past it and we’re back in full operation again,” he said.

The ferry authority sailed a second route for about two years linking the island’s Coffman Cove with Wrangell and Petersburg. It ended because it attracted too few riders.

Read a report on the economic impacts of the Inter-Island Ferry Authority.