Do We Need Saltwater Licenses?

Only if we want the power to influence fisheries management
Fly Rod & Reel    April 2005

The editor of this magazine dropped by for dinner and to talk about an article he wanted on why coastal states need saltwater fishing licenses. Being an avid ocean angler, and having worked for a state fish and game agency, I was eager to get started and knew exactly who I would talk to.

My first source told me, "Anglers will almost certainly lose as the pieces of the marine fisheries pie are cut and distributed. They will come up short because one, they are not counted with undeniable accuracy and precision and, two, their fishing effort and harvest cannot be established with statistical acceptability. . . . Without [licensing] saltwater angling can pretty well expect to be crowded gradually out of the picture over the next decade or two." That source was Dick Stroud of the Sport Fishing Institute. The editor/dinner guest was John Merwin. The year was 1980.

A quarter-century later Stroud's prediction has come to pass, at least in the Northeast. The only coastal states (other than Hawaii) that don't have saltwater licenses are Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Delaware. For the sake of brevity, and because there are other peripheral issues in Hawaii, I'll focus only on the Northeast. Is it just that Yankee salts are tightwads? No, it's also because there are lots of facts about saltwater licensing they don't want to know.

Those facts are getting harder to ignore because in states that have implemented saltwater licensing management successes are increasingly spectacular. Mostly, this is because licensing provides contact information so that anglers looking after their own best interests-including groups of anglers such as the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA)-can organize, energize, educate and direct. And legislators pay far more attention to documented lists of resource users than someone's guesstimate of voiceless, nameless absentees.

In North Carolina (which didn't legislate a saltwater license until 2004) the Division of Marine Fisheries estimated that of 29 species pursued by both anglers and commercials in 1999, anglers took 33 percent of the harvest. And yet there were an estimated 1.1 million to 1.5 million anglers compared to 9,232 licensed commercial fishermen. For the past decade the most popular recreational and commercial fish in the state, southern flounder, has been overfished to near collapse, mostly by commercials. A good recovery plan was shouted down by commercials. With the blessing of managers, commercial fishermen have nearly wiped out the state's blueback herring (important forage for all sorts of gamefish). In the 1970's the annual herring harvest was about 20 million pounds; in 2003 (when the fishery should have been closed) the harvest was 100,000 pounds.

States that require saltwater recreational fishing licenses derive about 80 percent of their saltwater management revenue from this source. It's true that managers don't always use license revenue wisely (although they're getting better); it's also true that in most states they are fed and clothed by license revenue and that they cater to the interest groups providing it. This is why, on the inland scene, game and fish departments tend to ignore that 99.999 percent of fish and wildlife they call "nongame." This is why Northeast states let commercial fishermen call the tune; and this is why Alaska and coastal states in the contiguous US from Maryland south around the Atlantic coast, west along the Gulf, and north to Washington have controlled or eliminated most commercial fishing. The phenomenon is called political reality.

As CCA chairman Walter Fondren puts it: "There is strength in numbers, but only if someone is counting. The owner of a seafood company that employs 100 people has historically wielded far more power in the fishery-management arena than a vast, silent, unknown population of recreational anglers. That seafood company's payroll, landings data and bottom line provide a tiny snapshot of the value associated with a particular fishery, but it may be the only snapshot. That monopoly on information translates into political power."

Because Texas has a saltwater license, it knows it has 900,000 anglers who fish in the ocean and who annually contribute $1.3 billion to the economy and provide 20,000 jobs. Armed with this information-and looking after the best interests of fish, anglers and themselves-managers have basically run commercial fishermen out of state waters (in this case, nine miles into the Gulf). Since 1980, when Texas banned gillnets, redfish and spotted sea trout have recovered from near extirpation to natural abundance. "Because of our saltwater license we have over 30 years of continuous monitoring data on all our recreational fisheries," declares Dr. Larry McKinney, coastal fisheries director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "This allows us to make very sound management decisions and identify problems before they become serious. I can't imagine why your [Northeastern] anglers aren't demanding a license. Until recreational anglers are willing to put money on the table to build programs, they're not going to be able to compete with commercial fishermen. It's just not going to happen."

"In providing saltwater fishermen with political standing, a license could revive Florida's decrepit sport fishery-even if all the revenue were blown on junkets and easy chairs," I reported in 1980. "But when the state hosted a series of public hearings on a saltwater license in 1978 and 1979 the response was loud and angry. Fisheries biologist Ed Joyce, who took a few unofficial polls, figures that 'More than 95 percent of the [recreational] fishermen were opposed.'" Thirty roller-rig gillnetters were basically running the show while 7 million recreational fishermen sat on the sidelines. Said one disenfranchised soul, as he scrawled a $100 check to the license-seeking Florida League of Anglers, "I was in a big school of kings and was getting good action. All at once an airplane started flying around, and shortly after that, four gill-net boats stormed into the area like PT boats. The captain of the boat nearest me ordered me to leave. I raised my hand and made a defiant gesture. He picked up a rifle. I decided to leave after all."

It took 10 years; but, as commercial fishermen steadily wiped out mullet, redfish, ladyfish, snook, jacks, pompano, kingfish and other gamefish, Floridians smartened up. In 1996, six years after implementing a saltwater license, the state banned all commercial netting. This would have been politically impossible had no one known how many saltwater anglers there were in Florida or who they were.

Mark Robson, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's marine fisheries director, reports that saltwater licenses are now bringing in $15 million a year, of which, by law, 32.5 percent goes for research and management; 30 percent for fisheries enhancement; 30 percent for law enforcement, and 7.5 percent for administration, education and outreach. The state's artificial-reef program, which I have had reason to criticize on these pages in the past, is fast improving under strict supervision of three fisheries biologists. The department now spends about $600,000 to partially fund 20 reef projects a year. There is less dependence on construction debris and more on scientifically designed "reef balls."

"In most states fees for saltwater licenses are very nominal," observes Jim Martin, former fisheries chief of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and now conservation director of Pure Fishing (a conglomerate of tackle manufacturers). "If fishermen believe they can't spare a little money to win these allocation battles with commercial fishermen and protect habitat, then they're just not paying attention. In Oregon the license protected a lot of our habitat and allowed us to track fisheries [with coded wire tags] so we could get the maximum quotas. If you're not tracking your fishery and you've got endangered salmon mixed in with abundant hatchery salmon, they just close the whole thing down. With saltwater-license revenue we were able to mark stocked smolts so that our ocean fisheries are now almost all on hatchery fish. [If you catch a fish with an adipose fin, you have to release it.] And we used license dollars for hooking-mortality studies so our fisheries could pass muster with [NOAA Fisheries'] endangered-species people."

In North Carolina, and every other state that has legislated a saltwater license, anglers made it happen. In every state without a license anglers are preventing it from happening. Basically, they see the license as another "tax." For example, Jim Donofrio, director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, has this to say about New Jersey's proposed saltwater license: "Recreational fishermen should not bear the burden of increasing the state budget when we already contribute over $50 million in state sales taxes and over $2 billion to the state's economy overall."

According to the United Boatmen of New Jersey and New York, "a saltwater fishing license is another tax, pure and simple."

"This has shown the recreational fishing community that we really can make a difference," accurately proclaimed Doug MacPherson, legislative chairman of the Rhode Island Charter and Party Boat Association after his outfit led a vicious lobby campaign that defeated a saltwater license in 2003. Unfortunately, the difference wasn't a positive one.

"The Jersey Coast Anglers Association has always been opposed to a saltwater fishing license," writes its legislative chair, Tom Fote. "The recreational fishing community pays a considerable amount of taxes on tackle (regular sales tax plus 10 percent excise tax that goes into the Wallop-Breaux Fund). We also find ourselves taxed in other ways." Then, in the same breath, he complains that New Jersey isn't spending enough money on "marine resources."

Fote has it right when he notes that saltwater anglers already are taxed on tackle and other things (such as gasoline). What he and his allies apparently fail to comprehend is that by blocking saltwater licenses they are throwing away their own tax money and the tax money of all the saltwater anglers they purport to defend. What they're demanding and getting is taxation without representation. Under the Wallop-Breaux amendments to the Sport Fish Restoration Act, about a half-billion dollars are doled out to the states each year. Sixty percent of each state's share is based on the number of licensed anglers, 40 on land and water area. (No state can get more than five percent or less than one percent of available funds.) Under this program states can apply for up to 75 percent federal reimbursement on fisheries projects. So, by refusing to pay for a license, which would cost them roughly what they pay for three or four flies lost to bluefish in a morning, they are ensuring that all taxes they pay on fishing equipment and gasoline benefit everyone but themselves. They are getting nothing back in terms of enhanced enforcement, habitat protection or management; instead they are investing in such projects as Kansas catfish studies.

Northeast anglers fantasize that politicians will snatch their dedicated license revenue and spend it on things like welfare. First, most states have laws against this. Second, the Sport Fish Restoration Act provides powerful incentive against such behavior because it requires states that use license revenue for purposes other than fish and wildlife management or sportsman access to refund current and past federal aid (there's a similar program for hunters).

If you haven't logged onto Reel-Time-the Internet journal of saltwater fly-fishing ( so because there is always fascinating and civil discourse and you can pick up lots of useful information (like where stripers, blues, tuna and albies are being caught on any particular day). But I get discouraged whenever the subject gets around to saltwater licenses. Citing Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's 2003 theft of the Inland Fish and Game Fund, one otherwise thoughtful and informed participant recently wrote: "Politics being politics, I agree with Capt. Ken. Believing license fees are going to be directed to the saltwater fishery is wishful, gullible thinking."

But there's nothing "wishful" or "gullible" about it. The point is this: When Romney attempted to steal inland hunting and fishing license dollars, the US Fish and Wildlife Service informed him that the commonwealth would have to reimburse the feds to the tune of $4.7 million. Moreover, because Massachusetts' inland sportsmen have to buy licenses there's a list of who and where they are. Managers wasted no time telling them about the threat, and through their local clubs, sportsmen were in instant communication. Therefore they were able to lobby the bejesus out of the legislature. Romney never had a chance; he had to restore the Inland Fish and Game fund.

The studied ignorance of Northeast saltwater anglers regularly elicits laments from Reel-Time coordinator Capt. John McMurray who, for example, editorialized as follows in one of his weekly reports: "How come folks can get so worked up about a saltwater license that, more than likely, would have helped the fishery; start petitions; throw out conspiracy theories about how none of the money will go to the Dept of Fish and Game, etc.; but can't get a half dozen people at the Amendment 6 hearing to ask for lower mortality targets for striped bass. Unbelievable!"

I suppose Northeast anglers may be excused for fretting about the possibility of having to stuff their wallets with licenses from little states so close together that, in Long Island Sound for instance, they commonly fish Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York in the same day. "But New England could have regional reciprocity," comments Jim Martin. "We have it in the Columbia River-the border between Oregon and Washington. If you have either license, you can fish anywhere in the river." It's the same with freshwater boundaries most everywhere in the nation, including the Northeast. If states persevere in resisting saltwater licensing, warns Martin, the feds are likely to impose a license of their own. "There are increasing efforts to create one," he says, "and there's a good chance that money would not be dedicated."

There is virtually no marine enforcement in the Northeast because there's scarcely any license revenue for it. So brazen are striper poachers in New York City, for example, that they don't even bother to hide their illegal fish. Turn them in, and they'll sink your boat, as one of my guide friends has twice discovered. Another friend-also a guide, whose name I can't mention because poachers will retaliate against him-writes as follows: "I invite you to watch the poachers, every day, and dozens of different boats, going nuts in our area. There is no one to enforce against these guys. . . . I gave the Dept. of Environmental Conservation three hours of videotape of the poachers doing their thing, gaffing hundreds of shorts, faces and registration numbers in full view, and nothing happened. . . . I have personally had boats try to ram me and had one guy jump in my boat with a baseball bat. I have three children to support who need me more than the crabs on the bottom of the bay."

"Who are the 'sprots'?" FR&R saltwater editor, Jeffrey Cardenas, once asked his Cajun redfish guide after encountering a message scrawled on a gillnetter's shack that read: "F--- the sprots."

"We're the 'sprots'," said the guide. Having licensed its saltwater anglers, Louisiana had banned gillnets, and the graffitist had been attempting to spell "sports." Even where they haven't been inconvenienced or put out of business, commercial fishermen don't like sport fishermen. So maybe the best case for recreational saltwater licensing is being made by lobbyists for the commercial fishing industry, who are fighting it like cats fight baths. If it is really an insidious plot designed to shake down sports, why are commercials suddenly so protective of anglers' fiscal well-being?

At the recent hearings in North Carolina, the only organized opposition to the recreational saltwater license came from commercial fishermen. "We don't like a license period," their chief lobbyist-Jerry Schill, president of the North Carolina Fisheries Association-told me this past November. But when I asked why he and his colleagues are so committed to conserving anglers' money, he said only that the license had a "bunch of holes in it."

"So you'd be in favor of a recreational license that didn't have holes?" I asked.

"No," he replied. "When you start making exceptions it sounds as though we favor a license, and we don't. We've opposed it for 10 years. There are reasons to have a license, and the good reason is better data."

"So your association would favor a license that provided good data?" I asked.

"No," he said. "When you look at what the CCA has done in Florida and the Gulf states, it's pretty obvious what they want the power for. So it is my duty to do whatever I can to derail them from getting that power."

"Because you believe that, in fact, they will get power?"

"No. We were opposed to it because that was what they believed." When I told him I didn't understand anything he was trying to tell me he said, "Then you don't understand fish wars."

But if there's one thing I do understand it's fish wars, because I've been in the middle of them my entire adult life. Finally, I asked Schill if increased revenue for the management of southern flounder might not be salubrious for his industry, since that species is the number-one target of both commercials and anglers. "That's the old liberal notion-throw money at a problem, and we'll fix it," he replied. "And it's only been a recent revelation-like this year-that this state has been overfishing southern flounder."

It's "only been a recent revelation" because the state lacked data. It lacked data because it lacked funds. And it lacked funds because it lacked license revenue and the federal aid in sportfish restoration that goes with it.

Schill is not always this long-winded and unintelligible, especially when he is talking to his own people. So tight and terse was his diction in a 2003 statement to The National Fisherman that, in just 55 words, he was able to say everything I've been trying to say up to this point: "Look what happened in the other states," he declared. "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' plates. In other states, gillnet bans. And in Florida, they got the ultimate: a commercial net ban."



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