Respondents to a recently completed Alaska State Parks recreation use survey said they felt more crowded on the Kenai River in 2002 than those who participated in a similar survey 10 years earlier.
The study was carried out at the request of the Kenai River Special Management Area advisory board. The board said a study was needed to follow up a larger one done in 1992 that indicated the number of boats on the river was beginning to negatively impact people's enjoyment of the river. The board said it wanted to see what people think about the river today.
According to Alaska State Parks area superintendent Chris Degernes, who authored the summary of the project, the survey was useful in that it provides a snapshot of people's feelings about river crowding.
"It shows us any changes or trends that are occurring," Degernes said.
The main components of the project consisted of a survey given to people upon leaving the river. The survey questions were modeled after ones used in 1992, so that comparisons could be made between the two time periods.
One of the most telling results of the project was a finding that on a 1 to 9 scale, 2002 respondents reported feeling more crowded on the river. In 1992, approximately 25 percent of respondents said they felt crowding was high (from 7 and 9 on the scale). By comparison, 38 percent in 2002 said they felt crowding was at a high level.
Degernes did note that the 2002 fishery was somewhat unusual because the fishery was limited due to a poor return of early run kings.
"Because it was an unusual year, one would expect to see more crowding. A lot of the fishing was compressed into the lower part of the river," she said.
Despite the compressed fishery, Degernes said the study will be a useful tool in establishing trends in the future. She hopes to carry out similar projects on a yearly basis. She said carrying out small monitoring projects is more cost effective than large ones, because the smaller projects can be done on a yearly basis.
"It's something that's real doable," she said. "Increased conflicts will show up sooner in a (yearly) monitoring project than in a decade."
Other survey questions addressed people's overall enjoyment of the river and how often they saw problems occurring.
For example, one question asked participants how often they saw other anglers causing problems on the river. According to the survey, problems such as fishing violations, littering and aggressive behavior were perceived to be about the same as in 1992.
Additionally, even though anglers said they felt the river was more crowded in 2002, their ability to find an uncrowded fishing spot remained virtually unchanged. In 1992, 12 percent of survey participants said they had difficulty finding an uncrowded spot at least 75 percent of the time. In 2002, that number had climbed to just 15 percent.
Degernes said the results of the survey are not really surprising.
State Parks has been hearing about crowding issues on the Kenai for years, and the monitoring project simply further outlines problems on the river. She said the section of the survey where people could make comments was particularly useful in determining people's perceptions of river crowding issues, because it showed a growing desire on the part of the public to limit commercial guiding operations.
"The only thing that really stood out was support for limiting guides. There's kind of a growing support among members of the general public to limit the number of guides," Degernes said, noting that State Parks has already begun addressing the problem with a 2003 Kenai River guide moratorium.
In spite of the fact that people seem to be feeling squeezed on the Kenai, Degernes said the results don't show a huge change in people's enjoyment levels over the past decade.
"It says it's really not better than it was 10 years ago," she said. "But it's not way, way worse."
Despite the issue of large crowds, many survey participants had nothing but positive things to say about their experience on Alaska's most popular sport fishing river.
"Very enjoyable experience, will come back," wrote one anonymous respondent. "(The) fish were a nice size and the people were really nice."
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