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Industry pursues all the anglers for fear of lost tourism revenue

Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2002

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- Alaska anglers may love to badmouth the nonresidents who clog the state's salmon streams every summer, but fewer visitors could mean fewer fishing opportunities for residents.

That's because the Outside anglers who haul to shore about a quarter of the state's sport fish catch every year account for about 70 percent of the money that pays for management of the fisheries in the 49th state.

Sport Fish Division officials are pondering what will happen if those tourists, worried about the dangers of air travel, elect to fish closer to home.

Almost three-quarters of the nearly $24 million budget of the division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game comes from either the sale of licenses to nonresident anglers or Federal Aid to Wildlife Restoration revenue-sharing funds linked to taxes on the sale of fishing gear.

Alaska is one of the biggest recipients of that federal revenue sharing even though its residents contribute little to the fund. Nearly all the revenue sharing money comes from equipment and tackle sales outside the state.

Whether a dramatic drop in tourism would disrupt this steady flow of money from sporting goods stores in the Lower 48 to state government here is hard to say.

In order to collect the federal funds, the state has to put up a 25 percent match, according to Doug Vincent-Lang, assistant director of Sport Fish for Alaska.

In the past, that has not been difficult. The money has come from the sale of fishing licenses, and the state has shown a knack for getting tourists to pay.

Before setting current nonresident fees -- $100 a year, $50 for two weeks, $30 for 10 days, $20 for three days, $10 for one day -- the state spent some time trying to figure out what pricing schedule would encourage people to spend the most.

The result was that nonresident license fee revenues climbed to $7 million. But if the 25 percent decrease in tourism materializes, sportfishing license revenues could drop by about $1.8 million, Vincent-Lang said, reducing the department's revenue by 17 percent for this year.

Ripple effects beyond that are harder to calculate, he said.

''The agency does have the ability to shift some of our current Fish and Game activities into federal aid'' programs, Lang said. ''That could free up some Fish and Game money.

''Still, a $2 million cut would significantly eat into our ability to do (what) we're doing.''

Cuts could show up in several places.

The Sport Fish Division is responsible for in-season management of subsistence salmon fisheries on the Copper River near Chitina. The agency keeps track of catch data that affect not only the state dipnet fishery but subsistence fisheries upstream from Chitina plus sport fisheries on rivers like the Klutina and the Gulkana.

When budgets have shrunk in the past, Fish and Game has often responded by lessening its in-season monitoring of fisheries, deciding instead to simply manage more conservatively on the premise that letting thousands of extra salmon onto the spawning grounds won't hurt the resource.

However, on a river such as the Copper where every salmon is in demand, the ripple effects of any such change in philosophy could be huge -- shortened seasons, reduced bag limits or possibly even cuts to commercial harvests in the ocean.

Among the things that could be considered if there were a fiscal crisis:

--Cut back costly stocking programs, such as those that put salmon in Anchorage's Ship Creek or trout in Anchorage lakes.

--Eliminate efforts to protect and expand access to waterways like Little Willow Creek or Deep Creek, where private landholdings sometimes block the path to public waters.

--Abandon the use of emergency closures at any sign of a weak run and replace them with conservative seasons and bag limits, or simply close fisheries. Without the ability to monitor fisheries and make in-season changes, biologists agree, liberal fishing regulations amount to playing Russian roulette with Alaska's resources.

Russ Redick of Anchorage has been on both sides of this decision-making process for decades. A former regional supervisor for Sport Fish and then a fishing travel planner, he remains optimistic that the tourism drop in Alaska this summer will be less than projected or that the Legislature will aid sport fisheries if the worst happens.

''The bulk of (Fish and Game's) money is the Federal-Aid money,'' he said. ''You've got to get that 3-to-1 match. I'd think it would be hard for legislators to pass that up.''

The Sport Fish Division has for years been the ultimate user-fee agency. All its money comes directly or indirectly from anglers, most of them nonresidents.

''I don't think the average angler understands that or cares,'' said Redick, who is retired. ''He just wants to go fishing. They don't care about some bureaucracy. They might (complain) about the regulations, but they seldom do anything.''

Somebody might have to do something, however, if tourism goes bust.

''I tend to think serious anglers will come next year,'' Redick said.

It might, he added, be premature to predict a tourism slump, noting his business didn't do the majority of its bookings until the January-March period. By then, he added, he could compare November and December bookings with those of previous seasons.

And that is what worries the Alaska Travel Industry Association. Projections on the tourism drop, the association says, are based on seasonally corrected lags in bookings from previous year.

The association, which considers sportfishing an important niche market, has already stepped up marketing. The Web site www.sportfishinginalaska.com has gone on line, and a push is on to sell Alaska to anglers at the Pacific Northwest Sportsman Show in Portland in a few weeks.

One concern about the coming season is a slump in the number of impulse anglers -- residents of Seattle or Portland who might, in good times, fly to Alaska for a few days of fishing.

Delays at ever more security-conscious airports appear to have put a damper on such trips, travel association officials said. Redick doubts that anglers who have planned for months or years to come to Alaska will cancel their trips because of Sept. 11, but he wonders about those impulse anglers.

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