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Published in Fly Fishing in Salt Waters: July/Aug 2011 Issue

 

PAY NOW, OR PAY LATER

States choosing to bypass saltwater licensing programs may be in hot water

 

It’s certainly not news that anglers, as well as some managers, have been critical of the science behind recreational fishing regulations, largely because they are based on estimates that many consider inaccurate.  To address that problem, when the Magnuson Stevenson Act was reauthorized in 2006, it contained a provision requiring the Feds to set up and maintain a registry of all saltwater anglers, which would be used as the basis for a revamped, and hopefully more accurate, recreational harvest survey.

 

Anglers in states that have approved saltwater registry programs were exempted from the federal registry, while those in states without such a program would have to pay a $15 annual fee to register with NOAA.  That fee would be deposited in the US Treasury with no earmarks.  Magnuson-Stevens intentionally created such a seemingly “bad deal” entirely on purpose, hoping to motivate those states which had not yet done so, to implement their own saltwater license systems, which would not only register anglers but also provide funds for state fisheries programs. 

 

Just about every coastal state has realized the wisdom behind implementing its own license program.   Not only would revenues remain in the state and benefit anglers, such a license would allow the state to increase its share of Federal Sport Fishing Restoration Funds, which represent the 10% federal excise tax paid on tackle, boats, fuel etc.  Part of the calculation used to apportion such funds considers the number of licensed anglers in a state (the other factors are surface area and coastline length) so, the more licenses a state sells, the more money it gets back.

 

Thus, just about every coastal state that didn’t have a saltwater license program struggled to get one up and running by the Jan 1, 2011 deadline … Every state but New Jersey, that is.   In February, after a barrage of political pressure and misleading information from a faction of the state’s recreational fishing community, Governor Christie signed a bill establishing a “Free Registry”.   The general consensus is that such a registry is anything but free. 

 

It’s quite clear that funding the registry will greatly exacerbate the already deteriorating finances of the state’s Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW).  According to the USFWS, New Jersey is third place on the Atlantic Coast for what fishing brings into its economy.  However, it ranks 17th in the amount that it spends on marine resource management, and dead last among the states in the amount spent per angler.

 

DFW was allocated $1.9 million for marine programs last year, but budget cutbacks reduced this to $600,000.  The DEP and Governor have indicated that the new registry will be funded out of the DEP’s budget, and not from DFW or Marine Fisheries.  What the cost will be, and whether or not the registry will be funded out of the general DEP budget in the future, no one seems to know.  “It’s utter confusion as to what money will pay for the registry, where it will come from, and what programs we will have to sacrifice to get the job done” one official told me in confidence.  But the bottom line is that the Bureau of Marine Fisheries will have less money and fewer resources as a result of the “free” registry. 

 

Officials are currently working on a draft plan to identify what can be cut from the marine program.   Already, NJ will be shutting down its river herring fishery this year and its shad fishery in 2012 because it simply doesn’t have the resources to manage them sustainably—and those are just two  of 22 fisheries that NJ must manage pursuant to interstate and federal rules.  "Fishermen don't realize this is the first domino to fall” Edward Markowski of the New Jersey Outdoors Alliance said to the Asbury Park Press.  If a state can't meet its obligations under a management plan, it can be found out of compliance and the affected fishery shut down. Some politicians are claiming the free registry will bring more anglers to New Jersey, but given the potential for closures anglers may be glad to pay for a license in a state with properly managed fisheries.

As of this writing, NJ still hasn’t implemented their registry, although they claim it will be up and running by May.  Until NOAA certifies New Jersey’s registry, its anglers must register with the feds for $15. 

 

New Jersey’s predicament should have served as a warning to other states.  But like a virus, the free-registry malady quickly spread to New York, a state which had wisely implemented a saltwater license in 2009.  A license repeal bill recently introduced in the State Senate, at the urging of the same faction that opposed the license in NJ, had little chance of making it though the Assembly.  However, a compromise proposal buried on page 51 of the Governor’s budget bill replaced outright repeal with a two-year suspension of the licensing requirement, and created a free registration that would satisfy the feds during that hiatus .  Yet unlike the NJ situation a stipulation replacing lost license revenue with$1.9 Million in General Fund support for Marine Bureau operations was included. Such funding will keep NY’s DEC Marine Bureau afloat, although just barely. 

 

Last year, New York’s saltwater license generated $2.4 million.  According to the Governor’s budget office, the state will lose an estimated $1.4 million in federal sportfishing aid that was anticipated in 2012-13.  Furthermore, the Bureau of Marine Resources will be required to expend a significant amount of staff time and money on the free registry.  That will take resources away from critical research, management and habitat conservation programs, not to mention law enforcement. 

 

The funds to pay for the creation and maintenance of the registry will likely have to come from NY’s Conservation Fund.  In other words, the state’s hunters and freshwater anglers who, for decades, paid a license fee into the Conservation Fund will see a reduction in services that benefit freshwater fish and game diverted so that salt water anglers won’t have to pay for a license.

Certainly there’s been discussion in both NJ and NY about other ways to fund their marine bureaus.   A specialty license plate and a scratch-off lottery are among the top prospects advocated by the “free” registry folks.  Yet, in New York, a marine-resources license plate has been offered for years.  Very few people know about it and even fewer buy it.  If anglers won't pay $10 for a license, it’s not reasonable to believe they would buy a more expensive license plate. 

 

A lottery has practical problems.  There are already plenty of lottery offerings in both states, backed by an active advertising program.  It’s unlikely that states would promote a competing lottery so that a few fairly well-to-do anglers can play for free.  And to the extent that people are aware of what they're buying, it’s likely that they would rather buy the tickets that support education, which at least in theory, provide a little tax relief. 

 

Lastly, and perhaps most important, any funding source short of a saltwater license is NOT protected from being raided by politicians for other uses.  Despite what the license opponents say, saltwater license funds are protected by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, which will withhold or demand payment of federal matching funds if license money is misused.  Furthermore, funds raised by either alternative funding source would not qualify for such matching funds, so would not produce anywhere near the same net revenues.

 

Despite all of this, there are folks pushing a “free” registry on other states such as New Hampshire and even Florida.  (Maine recently instituted what’s arguably a “free” registry, but they charge an administration fee, plus a fee for a striped bass stamp and an out of state fee).  Such states should take note of the problems NJ and NY are faced with.  Given the current financial straits most states are in, this is not the time to abandon a fair, inexpensive revenue-generating source of revenues needed to manage our fisheries.  The free registry might win points for opportunistic politicians in the short term; however, the stable funding source that a saltwater fishing license provides is the obvious and intelligent way to protect the public interest. 

 

What this all boils down to is that nothing is free anymore.  “Anyone who still believes fishing is a fundamental right in this and day and age is living in dreamland”, said Fisherman editor Fred Golofaro in a recent editorial. Increasing pressure on marine resources, a lot of which comes from anglers, requires science-based regulations and that takes gear and manpower, and that costs money. “It’s embarrassing,” admits CCA NY Vice Chair, Charles Witek.  “Anglers used to care about good fisheries management.  Today, there are a few very loud people who appeal to everything that is small, selfish and mean in the salt water fishing community.  The same people who want to see the license repealed are the people who oppose conservation measures and attack fisheries scientists.  They want managers to give them everything, but don’t want to give anything back.”

Despite what saltwater license opponents claim, licensing requirements have not reduced the number of anglers in states like Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina. Anglers in those states generally embrace the license, because they see how license money benefits recreational fishing, paying for access, research and even hatcheries for saltwater fish.  If we hope to see better data, law enforcement and access, we will simply and justifiably have to pay for it.  If we don’t we will certainly pay a worse price later on.