Finding out who's naughty, nice: River use study will focus on social issues, angler experiences

Posted: Thursday, December 18, 2008

This time of year, many children are extra concerned over who might be watching whether they've been naughty or nice.

In six months, however, it may be Kenai River anglers who should practice good behavior out of concern over who might be looking.

Doug Whittaker and his co-researcher, Bo Shelby, of Confluence Consulting & Research, will conduct a social science-based study on the experiences of river anglers.

The study is part of a $200,000 appropriation from the state, given to the Division of State Parks and Outdoor Recreation, to study the impacts of recreation on the river. According to Jack Sinclair, area superintendent for Parks, the need for a study goes back to 2002, when issues of limiting overcrowding on the lower river hit a legal impasse.

"The state of Alaska Superior Court basically said the state could not conduct a moratorium on guides in the lower river and would not limit any users groups until a study was done," Sinclair said.

Whittaker explained that this study won't look at the biological impacts of recreation. For example, there won't be studies of vegetation trampling by bank anglers or river bank erosion caused by boat wakes.

Whittaker plans to study how the at times heavy use of the river impacts the experience of three user groups; bank anglers, power boaters and non-motorized boaters. Though there are other user groups, Whittaker said that for both the sake of time and resources, anglers are the primary interest group.

The issues within and amongst these groups are fairly wide ranging, whether it's the classic shoulder-to-shoulder combat fishing along the upper river, guides versus private anglers or back-trollers against back-bouncers, to name a few.

Whittaker explained the point of the study is to provide the agencies that manage the river with better decision-making tools.

The actual study will use both observation and surveys. To better understand what questions should be used on the survey, Whittaker plans to begin holding focus group interviews in late January.

"Ideally the right number for a focus group is 6 to 12," Whittaker said, explaining that anything more turns into a public meeting. "I want the smartest of the group in the room."

Having done many similar studies on rivers across the U.S. and having lived in Alaska, including in Kenai, over the years, Whittaker said he's well aware of how passionate groups and individuals get when it comes to the river.

"I'm not looking for the agitator in the group," he said. "I want the guys willing to talk, who have a depth of experience. I want people that know about multiple segments of the river and it's ideal if they know about more than just their own stakeholder group."

He plans to use Parks, boards like the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board and stakeholder organizations to assess the concerns of personal-use fishermen, landowners, guides, drift boaters and so on.

"I can bring my social science expertise, but you can't match the expertise of the users on this river," he said.

Starting this May, Whittaker will begin the ground work of the study. He plans to model it after a similar recreational impact study he did on the Kenai in 1992 and 93.

The surveys will work in two parts. First an angler will take a few minutes to answer a few short questions on their experience on the scene. Whittaker will then follow up online or through the mail with a more in-depth survey.

Whittaker wants survey questions to address more than just problems, but also potential results.

"For the survey to succeed we need a to explore in full the range of issues to tell decision makers who will be hurt or helped by decisions made," he said.

Whittaker wants to give the different agencies managing the river as much data about users as possible, believing it will better prepare them to make decisions about river use.

Whittaker stressed he's not a decision maker.

"This is not one of those studies where the consultant ends up saying here's what you're going to do," he said.

There are uncontrolled factors that could impact the study like the weak economy, emergency closures or uncooperative user groups.

Whittaker said he, "hoped for an average year," relative to users, but pointed out that no year is really normal on the river.

While the recession could cause a reduction in the number of guided anglers on the river, he expected use both by locals and residents of the Anchorage vicinity to remain steady.

"Reduced guides would be a good experiment to see what reduced use looks like," he said.

While closures might be out of Whittaker's control and uncooperative user groups could impose some challenges, he's conducted several crowding studies over his 20-year career. He and his partner both have degrees in their field and have worked on several other world famous rivers including the Colorado in Grand Canyon, the Rogue in Oregon, and the Snake in Hells Canyon.

Whittaker called this one of his "premier studies," because of its potential to set the stage to direct management decisions on other heavily used rivers around the world.

"It's potentially a leader in how you manage these fisheries," He said. "It certainly has been on the fisheries side of things, though hasn't been on the social side."

Dante Petri can be reached at

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