One fish, two fish could get easier


June 15, 2008|By CANDUS THOMSON

You get what you pay for.

For nearly 30 years, when it came to keeping track of our fish populations and figuring out whether we were catching too many, that old chestnut was true.

The method used to count fish, the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey, essentially used two data-gathering tools: waiting around marinas until anglers returned from a day on the water and opening phonebooks and making random calls, hoping that at least some of the folks at the other end were of the fish-catching variety.

"Hi, did you go fishing this year? Oh. Well in that case can I order a pepperoni pizza with extra cheese on a thin crust?"

The census was so absurd that when scientists poked it with their fingers a few years back, it fell apart like Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign.

To be fair, MRFSS was never meant to be used that way. Everyone knew it, and no one trusted it. Yet it remained the primary tool in determining whether we were catching too many fish because Congress wouldn't pay for a better way to do the job.

But even Congress, the blindest of creatures, figured something was amiss. So when it came time to renew the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 2006, lawmakers insisted that the federal fish regulators conduct a more accurate count.

Which brings us to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announcement last week. Starting Jan. 1, the agency hopes to create a registry of recreational saltwater anglers to provide census takers with a legitimate fishing phonebook. The plan affects those who fish in federal waters (more than 3 miles offshore) and those who target striped bass, shad and salmon in any waters - an estimated 14 million people.

Eric Schwaab, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, is on the committee in charge of creating the NOAA registry. You can read the proposal at /mrip and offer comments through Aug. 11.

"We definitely need this type of information," says Tom O'Connell, Maryland Fisheries director. "We need it to manage these resources responsibly."

Combining the NOAA numbers - or fishing effort - with Maryland's volunteer angler survey that records dates of catches and lengths of fish creates a high-definition picture for state biologists.

The registry is being applauded by groups such as Coastal Conservation Association, which has long backed mandatory saltwater licenses as a way to show lawmakers and regulators the economic and political muscle of the recreational community.

"If you want to be a stakeholder, you have to be counted," says Robert Glenn, executive director of Maryland CCA.

Although NOAA is calling it a proposed rule, make no mistake, it's a done deal.

As reported in The Sun on Thursday, anglers will register by phone or online. The system will be free the first two years and will then cost $15 to $25 annually.

States can earn an exemption by creating their own registries and passing along the information to NOAA. For the Eastern Seaboard states from New Jersey to Maine - which don't license saltwater anglers - the NOAA plan is the first step down that road.

"States without saltwater licenses have a strong incentive to adopt licenses," says Jim Balsiger, acting assistant administrator for NOAA's Fisheries Service. "Any fee that a state collects through a license can be used for restoration and fishery management in the state."

Maryland has a "bay sport," or tidal water, license. Last year, it issued 107,251 resident licenses, 21,504 nonresident licenses and 13,558 five-day licenses. Anglers who fish on licensed charter boats - thousands of people - don't need a license and won't be required to register because their catches are counted under a different census.

And while the state does not account for surfcasters who target striped bass, that's a fairly simple fix.

The tricky part here is what to do about the $50 bay sport boat decal that permits the skipper and anyone on board to fish. Last year, the state issued 50,556 decals.

"It's our responsibility to collect this information. ... We can't rely on boat owners to take down the names and phone numbers of all their guests," O'Connell says. "We just have to figure out a way that doesn't disrupt people's lives."

Maryland also has several other questions to resolve on the way to getting a NOAA exemption, he says. For example, how can the state account for people who wet a line during the three free fishing days each year when a license is not required? What about people who fish from private property? What happens to the lifetime complimentary licenses that have been issued to disabled veterans and former prisoners of war?

Fisheries officials will be meeting with angler groups to work out a plan.

"Luckily," O'Connell says, "we have a little bit of time to figure this out."

O'Connell says it's too early to predict how much it will cost Maryland and its anglers to collect the information.

"It may not cost us that much at all, especially if all we have to get is a phone number and a name," he says.

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