PUBLISHED: 1:17 PM on Wednesday, January 26, 2005
ADF&G wants license fee increases

Photo by Karen Wright
  Sport fishing, as well as hunting and trapping, could become more expensive for residents and nonresidents alike if the Alaska Department of Fish & Game gets support for their suggestion in the Legislature.
Alaskans and visitors could see the cost of fishing, hunting and trapping licenses going up next year if a high priority request from the Murkowski administration for across the board sport fee increases is approved by the state legislature this session.ETwo weeks into the legislative session the Department of Fish and Game was still seeking a sponsor to introduce their proposal that would raise a total $8.8 million per year in new revenues from the license increases. The funds would be used to repay bonds sold to build new sport fish hatcheries in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and to pay increasing costs of "core hunting-related operations" in the Division of Wildlife Conservation, according to background material from the department.

The package includes an increase in the resident sport fishing license fee to $20 from the current $15. The cost of any combination fishing/hunting/trapping license would rise less by $4.60 or less, but the price of separate resident hunting and trapping licenses would double to $50 and $30, respectively.

Nonresident prices would also rise with fishing costs, again, increasing by lesser amounts than hunting. Nonresident fishing licenses would rise between $5 and $25, depending on the length of the permit. Except for military personnel, who will see no cost increase in any type of fishing license, nonresident king salmon stamp fees will also go $5 to $25. Resident stamp fees would not be changed by the proposal.

The fishing fee increases would produce $5.3 million annually with hatchery replacement as the prime beneficiary. The division's existing hatcheries on Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base, both in Anchorage, are antiquated but are also losing what has been free heated water from electrical generating plants on the military bases.

Both power plants are being revamped by the military in unrelated projects, but the result could be dramatic for production of fish, which supply much of the freshwater angling in the South Central region. Warm water can almost double the growth rate of rainbow trout, grayling, Arctic char, coho and landlocked Chinook salmon that are produced by the hatcheries.

Production of trout could fall as much as 180,000 fish per year, according to Kelly Hepler, Sport Fish Division director, who has asked the military to delay the otherwise imminent hot water shut-off for a year. He expects an answer before the end of January.

Planning is already underway for the Fairbanks hatchery on a Chena River site and construction could begin by the fall of 2005 if the fee hike was passed this year. The Anchorage facility would not begin until 2006, Hepler said.

Because licenses are already being sold for 2005, the earliest the higher prices could take effect would be 2006.

Beside the Interior funding, Southeast would receive about $200,000 a year to replace federal Sustainable Salmon Fund money that helps run the Crystal Lake hatchery near Petersburg. Funds could also become available for Chinook salmon enhancement work near Skagway, according to Rocky Holmes, Southeast region sport fishing supervisor.

Although lawmakers have not been quick to publicly embrace any price hikes, the $3.5 million in game fee increases will be a tougher sell because they will be used to pay for invisible management and fieldwork cost increases.

The amount is the minimum needed by the Division of Wildlife Conservation "to protect and expand hunting opportunities (and) maintain core hunting-related operations which are at risk because of a major budget shortfall," according to a department fact sheet. Without the new funds wildlife monitoring and intensive management programs will be reduced, shooting range hours will decrease and agency offices will be closed," according to a division statement.

Senate Finance Committee Cochairman Gary Wilken (R-Fairbanks) said the reception a bill would get before his panel "depends on which plan you're talking about.

"It started out as an innocuous little increase to build a fish hatchery that was going to be paid for by, 80 percent, people who live outside of Alaska. Last I saw it's now going to build tens of millions of dollars worth of fish hatcheries. It's going to replenish all sorts of funds. I don't know what the numbers are, but I guess we started out with a noble idea. I'm not sure it hasn't been 'Christmas-treed' and piled on. I'm going to talk with Fish & Game and see if indeed those increase are justified for whatever projects they have in mind.

"I was very much, back in September, a supporter of the plan presented in September," Wilken continued, "Since that time I'm not sure that support stays in place until we know exactly what it's going to be, how much and what it's going to fund."

The Fairbanks hatchery in particular is part of a tourism promotion plan and ADF&G legislative liaison Sarah Gilbertson was surprised by Wilken's lack of support.

"They really want this hatchery. They made it a part of economic development on the Chena," Gilbertson said.

Rep. Jay Ramras (R-Fairbanks), the restaurateur and freshman cochair of the House Resources Committee said the hunting license hike offered "a more murky benefit."

"I'm prepared to look constituents in the eye and tell them the increase in fishing licenses is a good thing because we'll have more fish. I worry that some of the increases we see in the hunting are going to be the equivalent of a 'campfire tax,'" Ramras said.

ADF&G has been working to marshal support for the bill, including sending senior officials to talk to senior and rural lawmakers.

"We're trying to do a lot of legwork with people. I don't want any surprises," Hepler said. House Speaker John Harris (R-Valdez) gave the proposal a "real positive" reaction, he added.

One group that probably won't be involved in the debate is the United Fishermen of Alaska, according to its president. "I don't think we want them to weigh into the increases of commercial license fees," said UFA head Bob Thorstenson, Jr.