State to examine sport-fishing decline

Overcrowding, license costs figure into reasons for dropping numbers

Posted: Tuesday, September 26, 2000

'Because the Kenai, Russian and Kasilof rivers are so crowded, they just don't enjoy fishing like they used to.'

--Scott Miller, manager of Soldotna Trustworthy Hardware

Fewer and fewer Alaskans are buying sport-fishing licenses, and now, the Alaska Division of Sport Fish is planning a study to find out why.

"What I think is going on is what we're seeing nationwide," said Doug Vincent-Lang, a biologist with the Division of Sport Fish in Anchorage. "Sport fishermen are becoming very opportunistic in buying licenses, and we're seeing a lack of interest in people aged 25 to 45. When you piece together what's happening in people's lives, it's trying to get careers online, having kids and raising families, and fishing is less and less a part of their lives."

But that is only speculation, he said.

This fall, the Department of Fish and Game will survey Alaskans who have bought sport-fishing licenses only sporadically or not at all in the last half-dozen years and try to find out why.

Scott Miller, manager of Soldotna Trustworthy Hardware, said many residents who visit his store seem tired of fighting the crowds.

"Because the Kenai, Russian and Kasilof rivers are so crowded, they just don't enjoy fishing like they used to," he said. "This year, I know a lot of people who haven't bought licenses who used to. They may only have gone out two or three times a year, and the last time they went, it wasn't so enjoyable. ... I have two personal friends who sold their boats and went golfing because they didn't like the crowds."

Brett Huber, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said the costs of waders, fishing poles, lures and the gasoline for a visit from Anchorage have risen.

"It's not a cheap sport," he said. "It takes a toll on young families with kids."

Meanwhile, he said, everyone likes to be successful.

"We've had several poor silver years in a row and restrictions on the king salmon fishery," he said. "Nothing is more discouraging for a family than buying four licenses and gear and not catching fish or not being able to go fishing because it's restricted. If they have the opportunity to do something else, we may lose them from the sport."

Jim A. Richardson, former chair of the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board, raised the issue with Gov. Tony Knowles in a letter last year and recommended that Knowles ask the Division of Sport Fish to confirm the trend and find the cause.

"Is there some relationship between the rapidly increasing numbers of nonresident anglers and the declining trend of resident Alaska anglers?" he wrote.

Richardson no longer sits on the KRSMA board. However, a recent study of fishing license records confirms the trend.

According to a paper by Vincent-Lang and Bob Walker, also with the Division of Sport Fish, the number of Alaska residents who bought sport-fishing licenses declined from nearly 191,000 in 1993 to just 176,000 in 1999. From 1993 to 1999, Fish and Game revenues from the sale of resident sport fishing licenses fell by nearly $250,000 per year.

The number of tourists visiting Alaska rose from 846,000 in 1993 to nearly 1.2 million in 1999. The number of nonresidents who bought sport-fishing licenses rose from 171,000 in 1993 to 228,000 in 1999.

Surprisingly, though, the fraction of visitors who buy licenses declined from a peak of more than 21 percent in 1995 to about 19 percent in 1999.

"If tourism begins to decline due to a downturn in the national economy or tourists selecting another location to vacation in, nonresident participation may actually begin to decline," Vincent-Lang and Walker wrote.

"Factors affecting the perceived availability of sport-fishing opportunities, especially for king salmon and halibut, will likely influence nonresident participation rates in the future."

The trends threaten Fish and Game funding, they wrote.

Miller said the declining rate of participation among nonresidents may be tied to the cost of licenses. The cost of a season nonresident license rose from $50 in 1997 to $100 in 1998. The cost of a season nonresident king salmon stamp rose from $35 in 1997 to $100 in 1998.

More male visitors are bringing their wives and children, he said. At the same time, there is more and more to do besides fishing.

"There's a lot of wives and children who don't buy licenses because it's so expensive," Miller said. "We'll have a group of five people come in here, and only two buy a license because it's so expensive. The wives look at it, and they don't really want to go fishing enough to pay $100 or $200. I think that's a big reason why the percentage is going down."

Vincent-Lang said the Alaska trend mirrors trends in the Lower 48. The number of sport fishers has leveled off or declined in several states, despite continuing population increases, he said. Meanwhile, people are opportunistic about buying licenses.

"They don't buy a license until they're ready to go fishing, and we manage our fisheries very intensively," he said. "They don't know two weeks ahead what opportunities exist, and by the time they do, they may have arrangements to go to a soccer game."

Stabilizing Alaska's fisheries so that anglers know what to expect may help, as will making sure anglers know their license fees support fishery management and conservation, Vincent Lang said.

Other states have begun actively marketing their fishing opportunities, he said. Huber said some states are trying such ideas as selling family fishing licenses to get young families involved again in fishing.

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