Anglers Left To Cast About As Changes In Law Surface

ON THE OUTDOORS

August 09, 2009|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Big changes are likely on the horizon for Maryland fishing licenses, and we're not just talking about swapping out a 9 for a 10 and a 10 for an 11.

The reasons are simple: The 2007 law that temporarily raised license fees to put more money in the Fisheries Service piggy bank kicks the bucket June 30. And the federal government says that beginning in January, states must count and record all saltwater anglers, including those who have never before been counted.

Then add in this: Someone has to figure out if the downturn in license sales after the price went up is an anomaly or tied to the economic morass and last summer's bandit-style gas prices or if it's a sign that anglers have reached their financial limit.

The picture has that old analog fuzz to it right now. But things may come into sharper focus Tuesday night when the Task Force on Fisheries Management hears from one of the best outdoors pulse-takers, Mark Damian Duda of Responsive Management.

Duda was hired by the Department of Natural Resources and the task force to help decision-makers devise a plan for the next legislative season, which is a little over four months away.

A few months ago, some people got their knickers in a knot when I suggested that the law that got the license fee ball rolling "backfired" because it didn't bring in all the revenue that was projected. Most of those folks had a hand in writing and passing Senate Bill 1012, or defending those who did.

There is no doubt that the vast majority of 1012's supporters had the best interests of the Fisheries Service - and the fish themselves - at heart. Fisheries remains understaffed and overwhelmed by the responsibilities heaped on it.

That's why in addition to boosting the budget, the bill authorized a task force to review the entire Fisheries operation and make recommendations. As a result, poaching penalties were raised and additional staff was hired to fill some gaps.

But there can be no doubt that the backers of 1012 got a late start in writing and lobbying for the measure. Some fees were raised while others were not. In rushing to pass the bill, all kinds of assertions were made by all kinds of people and certain stop signs got run. How do I know? I was there the day the bill almost didn't make it out of committee. It wasn't pretty.

No one asked what would happen if the state doubled the cost of a resident freshwater license and raised a nonresident license by $10. The same for the resident tidal license, which went from $9 to $15, or the pleasure boat decals, which went up $10.

That's because the fiscal note that accompanied 1012 projected that the license increase could give Fisheries "an additional $2.3 million in special fund revenues in fiscal 2008 and approximately $2.2 million in both fiscal 2009 and 2010."

Instead, the bill increased revenue by $1.3 million - nothing to sneeze at, but not the whole enchilada.

To be fair, DNR had predicted in its own analysis that while the number of freshwater and noncharter boat sport fishing licenses would remain stable, the number of resident and nonresident Bay Sport (tidal) licenses would decrease 15 percent.

Gina Hunt of the Fisheries Service says that fuel prices last summer meant that people just didn't venture out on the water much and had no need for fishing or crabbing licenses. Boat registrations plummeted, and last year was the first time that crabbing license sales declined.

(Keep in mind, however, that the new fees took effect July 1, 2007.)

During the debate on 1012, I never heard anyone talk about what happened in states where license fees were raised. It doesn't take an extensive search on the Internet to find out they went down.

The good news is that in most cases, license sales rebound, if not to their previous level, then to something approaching normal. Folks who track this sort of thing say it usually takes two years.

Hunt says sales appear to be recovering and year-to-date sales June 6, with three weeks to go in the 2009 fiscal year, were nearly 5 percent ahead of the same time last year. Revenue was up 4 percent.

That brings us to the other shoe.

To ensure a more accurate census and protect against overfishing, the federal government wants each saltwater angler accounted for by name, date of birth, address, phone number and where they expect to fish. In Maryland, where saltwater anglers don't need a license, that means building a system from scratch and getting the word out to anglers on how to comply.

The antiquated licensing system won't be updated by the Jan. 1 start-up and Maryland law must be amended next session to meet federal standards. So next year, anglers will complete a free registration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (online or by phone), then switch to the state system in 2011.

That's a lot of moving parts and a lot of anglers to alert in a short amount of time.

We'll talk about that in the coming weeks.

Fishing license sales

.................... ........... ...... FY 06 FY07 FY08 FY09*

Resident freshwater 124,351 124,484 103,362 105,969

Non-resident freshwater 10,590 10,901 10,138 10,573

3-day freshwater 6,944 7,349 7,115 6,932

5-day freshwater 2,677 2,694 6,167 6,654

Freshwater blind 93 87 103 110

Trout stamp 60,869 59,371 53,456 55,628

Total freshwater 205,524 204,886 180,341 185,866

Resident Bay Sport 92,548 92,917 78,589 81,216

Nonresident Bay Sport 17,045 17,420 18,045 19,727

Senior consolidated 16,082 16,733 17,643 19,539

5-day Bay Sport 8,857 8,529 12,708 14,472 Pleasure boat decal 44,553 43,964 41,177 42,604

Bay Sport blind 192 211 195 180

Total bay 163,195 163,041 150,714 158,199

Total crabbing 39,614 40,295 36,290 39,810

* Through June 6

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