State trolling for answers to drop in license sales

Posted: Thursday, February 15, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Fewer Alaskans are getting hooked on fishing and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game wants to find out why, because as the number of fishermen shrinks, so does the agency's budget.

Fish and Game began mailing out 8,500 surveys this week to try and learn why sales of resident fishing licenses have dropped by 15,000 since 1993.

While Alaska's population grew by 4 percent from 1993 to 1999, resident fishing license sales declined nearly 8 percent, from 191,000 in 1993 to 176,000 in 1999.

''Without people interested in maintaining the resource it's very hard to make a case for sustaining the longevity of that resource,'' said Bill Romberg, a fisheries biologist in Anchorage who spearheaded the survey.

''If people are just losing interest in fishing, that's one thing,'' Romberg said, ''but if the reason they're not sport fishing is because the opportunity they prefer isn't there that's another. We're trying to make sure the way we manage sport fisheries isn't causing people to drop out of it.''

Fish and Game has a vested interest in finding out the reason for the decline. License sales are one of two sources of revenue for the agency, the other being federal funds generated from a tax on fishing tackle and boating fuel. With the cost of a resident fishing license at $15, a decline of 15,000 translates to a loss of $225,000.

''When license sales do go down it's a significant concern in the long run,'' Romberg said.

Fortunately for Fish and Game, the decline in resident license sales has been offset by an increase in the number of more expensive, nonresident licenses being sold.

While the number of resident license sales has dropped by 15,000, the number of nonresident licenses sold in that same time period has jumped by almost 30,000, from 180,000 to 228,000.

Most of the surveys were mailed to residents who haven't purchased a license in the last few years to find out the reason they haven't done so.

The drop in resident license sales is part of a national trend, which has seen a decline in both fishing and hunting license sales in many states. It may simply be a reflection of society in that there are more things for kids to do and more parents working.

''There are more things competing for the time of parents and children these days and sometimes sport fishing falls off the plate,'' Romberg said. ''What the parents are interested in and what the kids are interested in may be changing.''

The biggest decline has come in the 25- to 35-year-old age group, Romberg said. Southcentral Alaska has experienced a bigger decline than the Interior or Southeast, also.

''We can look at trends but we don't know what the answers are behind those trends,'' Romberg said.

The survey is aimed at finding out if people aren't fishing because they don't have the time or they simply aren't interested in doing so.

''Is it family commitments, work commitments or lack of interest?'' Romberg asked.

Area management sport fish biologist Mike Doxey with Fish and Game in Fairbanks said the decline in fishing is part of demographic changes taking place around the country.

''Less and less people have a tradition in their family to go out and go fishing and hunting,'' speculated Doxey. ''Families are fragmented.''

Whether it's playing computer games, watching videos or playing sports, kids have more to do today, said Howie Van Ness at the Alaska Fly Shop.

''Kids are wrapped up in organized sports, which means the parents are wrapped up in organized sports,'' Van Ness said. ''They're playing soccer instead of fishing.''

Fishing has become more political in recent years, also, pointed out Jim Masterson at J&L Sports. Some Native groups now charge access fees to fish on rivers that border their lands, such as the Gulkana and Klutina rivers, the Interior's two most popular king salmon fisheries.

''You can't hardly go fishing anywhere without paying a fee to go across somebody's land,'' Masterson said.

Regulations on some streams have also become more restrictive as fishing pressure has increased in recent years. How much you can fish is largely dependent on the strength of salmon runs in other places, such as the Kenai Peninsula and Matanuska Valley.

''I've talked to a lot of guys, lost all interest in it for simple fact cause of all the rules and regulations,'' Masterson said. ''You can fish this lake with one thing and this lake with another.

Van Ness suspects problems with low salmon runs has been the reason for a drop in license sales in Southcentral, with crowded conditions also playing a role in the drop.

Fish and Game's Doxey, who grew up fishing and hunting in Fairbanks, said it's worth spending the money to find out why people aren't fishing.

''We think fishing is a fine and beneficial activity,'' he said. ''It's better than watching TV or doing drugs.'' - (Distributed by the Associated Press) -

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