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Flyfishing in Saltwaters, March/April, 2004



An Investigation into Saltwater Recreational Fishing Licenses

Part I

By Captain John McMurray


Nothing seems to raises the hackles of the northeast angling community quite like the recreational saltwater license issue.  In fact, in coastal states north of the Mason Dixon line it generates a frenzy of sorts.  Angry recreational fishermen label it “another tax” that will indefinitely end the fishing world as we know it.  There’s no doubt it’s a political hot potato.  As one moves further south the laws as well as anglers’ opinions gradually change.  From Maryland south along the Gulf States and extending over to the West Cost, saltwater licenses not only exist in most states but are coveted by anglers because they provide an array of benefits for recreational fishermen and the agencies who inevitably receive the license fees.  Twelve out of the 21 coastal states require marine anglers to be licensed.  Prices range from $7.50 to $110 for non- residents and $5.50 to $29 for residents.  In the first installment of this two-part article we’ll take a look into both sides of the raging argument over the recreation saltwater license issue.  In part two we’ll do a state-by-state analysis of those regions that do have a saltwater license and those that don’t.  


A Right to Fish?


Many who are opposed to a saltwater license believe that saltwater fishing is a birthright.  “It’s always been free, why should we have to pay for it now?” is a phase that is commonly heard from the Northeast angling community. Some consider saltwater angling a Constitutional right citing the Justinian Code and the King Charles II charter granting the common right to fish in the sea and all navigable waters anywhere in the colonies to all people.  However, court decisions in the US universally reject this argument, and find that fishing is a privilege, not a right.  Under the “public trust doctrine,” fish and other natural resources are held “in trust” by the states for the benefit of all their citizens.  The states have the right to exercise their “police powers” to rationally protect and regulate the use of those resources.


Those in favor of a license argue that while marine fish are a free public resource for the use and enjoyment of the public at large, a growing coastal population increasingly puts pressure on marine fish as marine recreational fishing continues to grow in popularity and participation. Ever more heavily fished stocks require increasingly complicated management and unfortunately it’s not free.  One can certainly argue that it is only fair that the users of that public resource be the ones to foot this bill, and in all coastal states the other major user group, (commercial fishermen) already pay license fees.  Robert McDowell, New Jersey’s Fish and Wildlife Commissioner wrote, "As fisheries research becomes more essential and increasingly complex, the cost will go up. Whether revenues are generated by fishing license fees or through tax dollars, saltwater sport anglers must be willing to pick up a major portion of the tab to pay for marine fisheries research and management."

Will a license turn potential anglers people off?

The anti-license crowd sees a saltwater license as a mechanism to limit access to the fishery; causing the casual fisherman to steer clear of a sport he or she would regularly have participated in if it were not for the inconvenience and financial hurdles (no matter how small) to participating.  They believe that a saltwater license places a barrier at the entry level and takes away the spontaneous nature of the sport.  Along the same lines, those opposed to a license are worried that any sort of fee will negatively affect industries (tackle manufactures, local shops, restaurants, hotels etc…) that depend on the anglers as consumers.  The Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) a national recreational fishing advocacy organization in New Jersey currently stated its opposition to a recreational saltwater fishing license in their home state.  "Recreational fishing adds a lot to our quality of life here in NJ. A license could turn a lot of people off," said the group’s executive director Mr. Donofrio

Unarguably, fishing brings in a good deal of money from residents as well as non- residents who spend liberally while vacationing in coastal states.  Many of these states are reluctant to instigate a license for fear that it might make some anglers turn to neighboring states without licenses for fishing trips.  But those favoring a license believe that the cost is negligible compared to the overall amount anglers spend on the sport per year and that it won’t deter most anglers in the slightest.  Twenty-five or thirty-dollars is not much compared to the thousands spent on equipment, tackle boats etc…  Saltwater license advocates believe that the number of anglers who are turned off because of this fee is insignificant, especially when compared to the amount of money that would be generated to benefit the resource from the far greater number of anglers willing to pay the license fee.  Regardless, states that do have a license have not experienced any sort of decrease in the number of anglers.  States such as Florida have seen a dramatic increase as the number of resident licensed anglers increased almost 70% from 1990 (the year the saltwater license was instituted) to 2000.


Then there is the issue of subsistence fishermen who are already being pushed out of many fisheries because of size and bag limit restrictions.  Anti-license advocates argue that this is a justice issue because subsistence fisherman will be permanently forced out of a traditional fishery because they cannot afford such a license.  According to the Asbury Park Press, Tom Fote, legislative chairman of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association and one of New Jersey's representatives on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission said, "Pier and bulkhead fishermen have already been hurt by the increased size limits and other regulations, a license would really hurt them."


Just another tax?


Those opposed to a license also argue that, while licenses have been required of freshwater fishermen in all states for years (their fees paying for the stocking of streams and ponds with hatchery fish), in saltwater only clams and other shellfish are permanent residents; while almost all sportfish anglers target are migratory, and managed on a coast wide basis under regional interstate plans.  Therefore a saltwater license would not benefit saltwater angling. However, a saltwater license wouldn’t be paying for saltwater stocking programs, it would be paying for increasingly complicated but necessary scientific management, artificial reefs, piers, access and the enforcement of fisheries laws that are being broken on a grand scale by poachers in states like New York, which just can’t afford a substantial and effective marine fisheries enforcement unit because they have no saltwater license funding.  


Anti-license advocates further point out that the recreational fishing community has already been a substantial source of state government funds via sales tax on equipment fuel etc… This is true, but the money generated by a sales tax goes into a general fund and not directly back into the resource.  But, in addition to sales tax, anglers pay a 10% federal excise tax on all fishing equipment, boats, boat fuel etc… through the Federal Aid in Sportfish Restoration Program or better known to anglers as the Wallop-Breaux Tax. Monies raised through the Wallop-Breaux Tax is returned to the states using a formula based on the size of the state and the number of licensed anglers.  Therefore, states with a saltwater license recover significantly more of the federal excise tax.  The result is one of the most successful "user pays--user benefits" programs in the world.


Wallop-Breaux’s distribution formula largely negates the arguments made by some anglers in non-license states who believe that the money generated by a saltwater license will not go back into the resource but rather into the general fund, generating no benefit to anglers.  Under Wallop-Breaux, if a state does use saltwater license money for purposes other than fisheries or wildlife related projects, and such use is disclosed in a  federal audit, they will not only lose millions in federal matching funds, but will be required to return money previously allocated to them.  No politician or government agency wants that. 


A present case-in-point is Massachusetts.  Its state legislature allegedly diverted millions of dollars in fees from hunters and anglers to help close a budget deficit by eliminating a trust account, called the Inland Fisheries and Game Fund, in the summer of 2003. According to the Sentinel & Enterprise, on Sept. 26, 2003, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has, in response, sent a letter to state officials informing them that the state would lose $4.7 million in federal fish and wildlife matching funds unless the Inland Fish and Game Fund was reestablished and the money returned.


Grassroots watchdog groups also must play a role.  Administrations, legislators, and politicians cannot divert saltwater license funds without committing political suicide if there are organizations diligently monitoring the fund and exposing those who try to tap it for other projects.   In states where the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) has chapters, they have been on top of the spending of license fees like white on rice.  For example, CCA FL was successful in helping to pass laws creating spending safeguards for the license fund from the moment the license was instituted.  According to Ted Forsgren, CCA FL’s Executive Director, there was a move to consolidate several trust funds approximately 8-years ago, eliminating the license funding safeguard and allowing license revenue to be used for broad-based purposes.  CCA FL lobbied against the measure but the appropriations committee had gone ahead and passed it.  Florida’s CCA chapter shined a harsh light on the activity, and decision makers were besieged with letters, while scathing editorials popped up everywhere.  House representatives were sent a clear message and as a result the measure never left the house.  The safeguards were inevitably left in place.   


Another concern of the anti-license crowd is that the license won't result in any more funds being funneled toward marine resources because the legislature will reduce the usual appropriation to the managing agency by the amount of revenues generated by the license.  However, pro-license advocates correctly argue that current funding is so meager that revenues from a license would almost certainly be greater than what the general fund is currently allocating to the managing agency. 


No License – No Data


Pro-license advocates, particularly those within management agencies, argue that recreational fishing data is grossly incomplete without a license system. Scientists and managers are charged with the complicated task of making decisions based on estimates that are unreliable, and more than likely, inaccurate.  In almost all coastal states a commercial fishing license is required and therefore managers know exactly how many commercial fishermen there are. Therefore, they are able to gather extremely accurate commercial harvest statistics. Similar data doesn’t exit for recreational fishermen in states where there is no licensing requirement. Knowing the total number of fishermen, both commercial and recreational, and the amount of fish they are catching, is a vital component to properly managing a state’s fisheries. Reliable statistics from recreational fishermen are essential to determine the impact of recreational fishing on fish stocks. In fact, sates are required by federal law to develop fishery management plans based on the best available data for all of the state’s significant fisheries. So it can be argued that states without a saltwater licensing program are not in compliance. 


With solid recreational statistics, agencies can better understand the impact anglers have on the resource and the economic significance of the sport. When managers don’t have complete data it can result in overly restrictive measures, or much worse, it can result in continued overfishing. In either case, anglers are the big losers. It is undeniable that with a licensing system fishery management plans will be greatly enhanced.   


But there are still those who argue that the total recreational catch does not impact fish stocks and the commercial industry is the only user that has an effect, so the above argument holds no water with them.  While it’s easy to point the finger, anyone with even a cursory understanding of fisheries management knows that this is simply not true.  In states where data is available, recreational anglers harvest approximately 30% of popular food fish and in some states they harvest 85 to 100% of popular game fish.  While it is an unpopular notion, one can see that anglers do indeed have a significant effect.  To think otherwise is pure denial. 


More Clout?


License advocates believe that a saltwater license would give anglers much more political clout with decision makers.   In states where a saltwater license does exit approximately 80% of the managing agency’s funding comes from recreational fishing licenses while about 20% comes from the commercial side.  In all states with a saltwater license the recreational community takes care of the lion’s share of a managing agencies funding. Therefore there is an enlightened self-interest in ensuring there are enough fish and suitable habitat as well as plenty of access to keep anglers happy and buying licenses annually.  As the agencies get more and more dependent on the money a license generates, anglers wielding the threat of not buying a license because the fishing has become poor, also wield more political power.  “If the fish stocks go to hell there will be less fishermen and subsequently less license money,” said CCA VA executive Director Richard Welton.  CCA VA was instrumental in getting a saltwater license in VA and they currently monitor the license fund’s expenditures.  Mr. Welton said “Those folks at the Department of Marine Fisheries don’t help anglers out of the goodness of their own heart, they want to make sure we are happy because we’re providing most of their dedicated funding.  The money puts us in the drivers seat.” 


Those opposing a saltwater license disagree.  In a recent press release put out by the Recreational Fishing Alliance, Michael Doebley, RFA’s Deputy Director of Government Affairs, said, "Five of the fourteen Atlantic seaboard states currently have a recreational saltwater license and it hasn’t given anglers the clout they deserve."  But the fact of the matter is that it has.  A comparison of the states with a saltwater license and those without will show this (next issue).   It’s very telling that in North Carolina, A state where a saltwater license bill is close to getting passed, commercial spokesmen have come out firmly against the bill.  Jerry Schill, head of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, the state’s largest trade and lobbying group for commercial fishermen, has publicly admitted that the license will give anglers more power.  In the November 2003 issue of the National Fisherman, Mr. Schill is quoted as saying, “Look what happened in the other states… Look what the CCA has done with that license when it’s been put in place.  In some states you’ve got fish that have been given “game fish” status, taken off consumers’ plate.  In other states, gillnet bans.  And in Florida, they got the ultimate: a commercial net ban.”   According to the CCA Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Director Dick Brame, “a saltwater license becomes a valuable bargaining chip and that’s why commercial fishing operations have opposed it.  The commercial fishing industry doesn’t want legislators to understand how many anglers there really are.”  


It only follows to reason that if there is a solid number of documented license-fee-paying-anglers in a state (and not a weak and un-provable estimate) those voting anglers are most certainly going be paid attention to.  In other words, if there are “x” thousand number of anglers in a certain politician’s district or state, then you can bet the politician is going to make decisions differently to get those votes.  


License advocates further argue that a license also allows angling advocacy groups to make an inequity argument that cannot be made in states without the license.  Because the states that do have a saltwater license pay a much bigger share of the managing agency’s funding then the commercial industry, then these groups can argue for a split where they are entitle to a larger share of the resource than the commercial side.  A saltwater license lets decision makers know exactly what the user divisions are when it becomes time make decisions.    While many CCA state chapters have yet to endorse a pro-license stance in their states, CCA national has come out in support of saltwater licensing programs.   CCA communications chair Ted Venker said, “A saltwater license simply defines the universe of recreational anglers in the state, and when push comes to shove this is very important”


Unfortunately, the rhetoric offered by those who oppose a license seems to have moved many anglers into blind submission.  License bills in many of the Northeast states will be impossible to pass in the near future because most anglers just don’t understand the benefits.   The bottom line is that the number of fishing licenses sold provides a good indication of the recreational value of fishing; it provides a solid count of the number of anglers and vital management data.  Furthermore, it supplies much needed funds for the under-funded agencies to do the job they were created for.  In states where a saltwater license exists it’s widely accepted by the public.  If anglers value the sport they will purchase licenses.  Marine fish are coming under more and more pressure each year.  It is ultimately the resource user’s responsibility to help by practicing ethical fishing, following rules, carefully handling fish and, perhaps, by ponying up once a year to help managers keep their fisheries viable. As budgets shrink, more and more agencies will rely on these user groups to continue their management programs.  It is this author’s opinion that it is reasonable to help with the management of a resource that anglers ultimately benefit from. 


Captain John McMurray is currently the Program Officer at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York, He is also the owner and primary operator of One More Cast Charters, Inc. saltwater fly and light tackle guide service in Jamaica Bay, New York and  sits as the conservation officer of the New York Flyfishing and Light Tackle Guides Association (PFLGA).   You can contact him at