A survey of attitudes about use or over-use of the Kenai River and regulations to minimize conflicts could begin next summer.
Chris Degernes, Kenai area superintendent for Alaska State Parks, said she envisions two parts -- a mail-out survey to gauge angler perceptions, and a survey on the river to determine where boaters fish, what methods they use and how much they move around. The Department of Fish and Game has $60,000 in funding.
Degernes asked the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board Thursday to begin designing the study -- even as Fish and Game begins a separate mail-out survey to determine why Alaska residents are buying fewer sport-fishing licenses despite increases in Alaska's population and booming sales of nonresident licenses.
Degernes said she would like to learn what drives anglers from the Kenai River.
"We hear anecdotally that people have left the river because it's crowded, there's too many guides. Whatever the story might be, we haven't really analyzed that," she said.
On Thursday, the KRSMA board heard about Fish and Game's study before it began discussing the proposed study on the Kenai River.
"License trends are getting mixed into this," Degernes said. "Maybe they're getting mixed in because there's something people are no longer happy with. Maybe someone can't fish because someone is back-trolling where they used to drift. Maybe someone is waiting too long in line at the boat ramp."
However, Doug Vincent-Lang, a biologist with Fish and Game's Division of Sport Fish, said there should be two separate studies.
"Maybe the reasons why you leave the Kenai River are different from the reasons you're leaving sport fishing in general," he said. "Maybe you're leaving the Kenai River because of overcrowding. Maybe you're leaving sport fishing because you have no time to fish."
In a letter to Gov. Tony Knowles last year, Jim A. Richardson, former chair of the KRSMA board, noted the trends in license sales. He recommended that the Division of Sport Fish confirm them and determine the cause.
"Is there some relationship between the rapidly increasing numbers of nonresident anglers and the declining trend of resident Alaska anglers?" he wrote.
In a recent report, Vincent-Lang and Bob Walker, also with Sport Fish, found that the number of Alaska residents who bought sport-fishing licenses declined from nearly 191,000 in 1993 to just 176,000 in 1999. The decline was particularly pronounced in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska and among residents aged 16 to 39.
"When you piece together what's happening in people's lives, it's trying to get get careers online, having kids and raising families. And fishing is less and less a part of their lives," Vincent-Lang said last month.
Perhaps those people are too busy to fish, he said. Perhaps fishing no longer competes with other activities. To bring families back, Richardson suggested setting aside beaches where children can fish without competition from adults, establishing areas where cars with children can park free and publishing free family fishing licenses in newspapers. People could cut those out and fill in the date they want to fish.
Vincent-Lang and Walker found that the number of nonresidents who bought sport-fishing licenses rose from 171,000 in 1993 to 228,000 in 1999. However, the fraction of visitors who buy licenses declined from a peak of more than 21 percent in 1995 to about 19 percent in 1999.
Division of Sport Fish funding is tied to license sales, and, Vincent-Lang said, the decline in resident licenses threatens funding for research on the Kenai River. So far, rising sales of nonresident licenses have made up the difference, but that could change if tourism declines.
KRSMA board member Ann Whitmore-Painter of Moose Pass said her husband no longer fishes, and she just fishes for halibut.
"The reason he quit fishing is because there's too many people," she said. "The reason I don't fish the Kenai River is because I don't combat fish. So I won't take my kids there."
She also questioned whether the rising cost of a license deters resident fishers.
Bill Shuster, who represents the U.S. Forest Service on the KRSMA board, questioned whether the passing of the baby boom generation contributes to the decline in license sales to younger residents. Board member Paul Shadura, a commercial fisher, questioned whether resident hunting license sales also have declined.
"The other thing is, maybe we should strive for quality and not quantity," he said. "Personally, I'd love to go back and fish on this river again."
Vincent-Lang said the decline in resident licenses seems larger than could be blamed on demographics, though he said will investigate the possibility.
Preliminary work suggests that crowding may be a more important issue than the $15 cost of a license, he said.
"That's one of the things we're going to be looking at as part of the survey," he said.
The Fish and Game survey will go to a sample of Alaska residents, he said, and it should be in the mail in about a month. Fish and Game will survey residents who buy fishing licenses every year, residents who used to buy licenses but quit and residents who have never bought licenses.
The Kenai River study will be separate.
Degernes said the Department of Natural Resources studied Kenai River boaters and riverbank fishers in 1992 and found that competition and interference with fishing methods were issues. The new study should focus on boats, how people use the river now vs. how they used it in 1992, whether the impacts are the same and what regulation boaters might accept to address conflicts, she said. There has been discussion of zoning parts of the river for particular fishing methods.
Vincent-Lang said Parks' mail-out survey should occur next fall.
"One thing we're nervous about is focusing only on Kenai River users," he said.
The mail-out survey should include those who presently use the river, those who used to use it and those who never have used it, he said. It likely will cost $30,000 to $40,000, he said, so there also should be money to survey river users during summer.
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