New law makes salt-water fishermen register with U.S.

Aim is to count, preserve fish stocks

  • Jane Barba Ebersberger, who works at Anglers Sport Center on U.S. 50, listens as state fisheries biologist Marty Gary explains the National Saltwater Angler Registry.
Jane Barba Ebersberger, who works at Anglers Sport Center on… (Baltimore Sun photo by Candus…)
December 31, 2009|By Candus Thomson | Baltimore Sun reporter

OCEAN CITY — In the most sweeping change for Maryland anglers in 25 years, tens of thousands of residents and vacationers who fish in the Chesapeake Bay or wet a line in the Atlantic Ocean or its coastal bays will be required to register with the federal government.

The National Saltwater Angler Registry, authorized by Congress, is a new tool for scientists to get a better handle on the numbers of recreational anglers and migratory fish caught - part of their effort to protect species and rebuild dwindling stocks.

At 4 a.m. Friday, telephone operators at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are set to begin issuing registration numbers to anglers in eight coastal states - including Maryland - whose licenses lack details the federal government requires. Online sign-up is available at

The national registry is free in the inaugural season, but registration in 2011 and beyond could cost as much as $25.

For Chesapeake anglers, especially those fishing for striped bass, the registry adds a step to the annual ritual of getting ready for a new season that includes buying a license and cleaning off the tackle box. But anglers in Ocean City and on Assateague Island fear it marks the beginning of the end of free fishing.

This week, Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologists started fanning out to tackle shops and fishing clubs to spread the word and explain the registry. So far, the reaction is mixed.

"I think it stinks because it's Mother Nature out there and they're going to charge for it?" said Cindy Sullivan, who works at Bucks Place on the road to Assateague Island. "It's going to be another way for the government to stick a hand in our pockets."

But just down the road, John Henry, a commercial fisherman who owns a bait and tackle shop bearing his name, was a little more philosophical.

"We need to conserve and we need to have better data so we know what we're doing. I think people will be OK with it if it'll help the resource and help them keep catching fish," he said.

For three decades, the NOAA and other fisheries management agencies relied on information collected through the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey. Staff waited dockside or visited piers and jetties to interview anglers and count and measure their catches. They also randomly called people listed in phone books, hoping to connect with someone who fished.

There was only one problem: MRFSS - or Mur-fiss, as scientists and fishermen alike call it - was designed to provide an annual coast-wide assessment of fish populations, not the kind of information policy makers and managers needed to set seasons and catch totals. As a result, MRFSS numbers were widely mocked and challenged by fisheries officials in coastal states and those in the recreational fishing industry.

"We've been living a nightmare," said Martin Gary, assistant director of Maryland's Fisheries Service. "Sea bass and amberjack seasons closed this year with no warning and we were told we exceeded our flounder quota based on MRFSS."

In 2006, the National Research Council, a scientific panel that advises Congress, confirmed suspicions, noting "serious flaws" and "inadequate analysis methods" in MRFSS. Its recommendation to overhaul the system resulted in the creation of the registry.

The new system creates "a phone book of fishermen" that will allow the NOAA to collect timely information by interviewing anglers about the number and type of fish they caught and where they caught them, said Gordon Colvin, who spearheaded the NOAA program.

Anglers registering will be asked to provide their names, dates of birth, addresses, telephone numbers and the states where they expect to fish. They will receive a confirmation number that will allow them begin fishing immediately. A wallet-sized registration card will arrive in the mail in about 30 days.

"Most people, once you talk to them, can accept the fact that there's a need to get better data than running your finger down the Manhattan phone book and picking out names," said Colvin, who expects to register between three million and six million anglers this year. "What we're doing is starting with an empty book that we hope to fill over time."

Fifteen coastal states have saltwater licenses and NOAA anticipates that the eight remaining coastal states will come up with their own registration systems and take over the process. Already, New Hampshire and Massachusetts have approved licenses to take effect in 2011. Legislation has been proposed in Virginia to bring its saltwater license into compliance.

Maryland officials are working to account for anglers exempted from buying a saltwater license, including those on the Atlantic Coast.

But replacing or modifying the Bay Sport License, created in 1985, will require General Assembly action next session. If the legislature approves the license, any money raised in 2011 and beyond would stay in state. If lawmakers reject the proposal, registry fees paid by Maryland anglers would go to the federal government.

"The whole process is necessary. A license is necessary," said Budd Heim, president of the 300-member Atlantic Chapter of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association. You go somewhere else and you have to have a license. What's so different about Maryland?"

The new rules
What: National Saltwater Angler Registry

Who: Maryland anglers who fish in tidal waters, including the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries

When: Beginning Jan. 1

Cost: Free for 2010

Exemptions: Anglers under 16; anglers on charter boats or head boats; anglers with Highly Migratory Species permits

How: Call 1-888-674-7411, 4 a.m.-midnight, or via

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