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State Looks For More Hunters, Anglers

A couple of anglers near Suwannee Lake's North Pier
A couple of anglers near Suwannee Lake's North Pier

Florida may proclaim itself the “fishing capital of the world,” but wildlife officials say they need more anglers to help cover costs of running state programs.

The same goes for hunters.

The number of people buying hunting and fishing licenses hasn't kept pace with population growth in the state, and wildlife officials are concerned that could impact the future management of public lands.

Brian Yablonski, chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said the state needs more “folk outdoors and experiencing angling, as well as hunting, for resource purposes as well as to build that constituency for wildlife conservation.”

To get more Floridians, particularly Generation Xers and millennials, to embrace outdoor activities, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is making that a fixed part of its marketing and outreach efforts.

“Conservation has been done on the shoulders of anglers and hunters for about 100 years,” Yablonski said. “Love kayaks. I'm a kayaker. Love photographers. Love boaters. … They pay general tax revenue. We have 10 percent of our funding is general revenue. So really, boaters, hunters, anglers, these have been shouldering conservation. If other groups want to shoulder some of that too, I think we're willing to hear that out.”

Commission members held a roundtable Monday with a number of outdoor recreation industry officials to discuss ways to boost participation, but not everyone believes Floridians want more hunting.

Katrina Shadix of Oviedo, a frequent speaker at commission meetings who has objected to past bear-hunting proposals, said the state shouldn't spend public money to “kill our already dwindling wildlife.” She said human overpopulation and the need to maintain clean water should be priorities.

“Spending taxpayer money to recruit people to kill wildlife, while labeling it as conservation, seems to be misleading and in direct conflict of the voice and will of the majority of Floridians,” Shadix said.

Over the past four years, fishing and hunting licenses have experienced modest growth, but commission members said Monday the numbers are not sustainable for wildlife conservation efforts.

As part of a program called “3R” --- recruitment, retention and reactivation --- intended to bolster the ranks of hunters, anglers and boaters, the commission is committing 30 percent of its hunting funds toward recruitment and 12 percent of its federal Sport Fish Restoration funds to finding new anglers, commission Executive Director Nick Wiley said.

Wiley said Florida has gotten more aggressive in marketing the state to retain and attract hunters and fishers, better than many other states, but fewer young people are picking up the outdoor activities.

“We know that declines are coming, and we're kind of holding our own in Florida right now,” Wiley said. “If you ran a business that depended upon your customer base, and experts tell you, `In five to 10 years your customer base is going to age out and they're all going to be too old to be customers anymore and you're not recruiting and bringing in new customers anywhere near as fast to replace them,' I think that would get your attention.”

The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a $367.2 million budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. Revenue from recreational license sales, along with excise taxes on equipment and boat fuel, accounted for more than $49 million for the commission in the 2015-2016 fiscal year. Those sources of money are projected to bring in just over $50 million for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Hunting licenses have had the weakest growth in recent years, going from 159,176 in 2013 to 162,604 last year.

The state, with more than 20.6 million residents according to the U.S. Census, sold 1.45 million saltwater licenses during the past fiscal year. The number of licenses is up from 1.3 million four years earlier. Freshwater licenses have grown in the same time from 513,483 to 589,637.

Besides looking for new ways to attract people to fishing and hunting, part of the effort will be reevaluating numerous existing programs, many that are popular, to determine their effectiveness.

“A true evaluation is not how many people you touch, it's how many people you move, how many people you change,” Wiley said.

The agency has targeted Feb. 1 to set new rules for finding and retaining new hunters and anglers.

The News Service of Florida is a wire service to which WUFT News subscribes.