Legislature Nixes Free Saltwater License Registry
The Maine legislature killed a proposal to create a free saltwater angler registry in the final week of this year’s legislative session. Federal officials will now establish a fee-based registry. Maine saltwater anglers will have to register with the feds beginning January 1, 2010.
The legislature considered two bills: LD 1331, creating a saltwater fishing license and fee, and LD 1432, creating a free saltwater angler registry.
The license bill never had a chance. But the registry did until political maneuvering killed it.
Democrats in the Maine Senate flexed their majority muscles and voted to recommit the free registry bill to the Marine Resources Committee, with only Democratic Senator Elizabeth Schneider joining Senate Republicans in opposing the move that effectively killed the registry proposal. Although a majority of senators had promised to support the registry bill, this maneuver prevented it from coming to a vote.
On June 10, just prior to the Senate vote that killed the registry bill, Gordon Colvin of the NOAA Fisheries Service emailed the following message to Senator David Trahan, the sponsor of the free registry bill.
“If Maine does not enact a salt water license or registry this year, anglers from Maine who fish in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (the ‘EEZ’ generally 3 to 200 miles from shore) or in state waters for anadromous species (striped bass, American shad, alewives, blueback herring, hickory shad, rainbow smelt) will be required to register with NOAA Fisheries as of January 1, 2010,” wrote Colvin.
“Registrations will be valid for one year from the date of issuance. There will be no fee for the registration for persons who register in calendar year 2010,” continued Colvin.
“Persons who register with NOAA Fisheries on or after January 1, 2011, will be required to pay an annual registration fee. The amount of the fee will be determined in late 2010, based on NOAA’s cost of administering the program as determined at that time, based on the experience to date in 2010,” concluded Colvin.
New Federal Mandate
Although proposals to create a saltwater fishing license in Maine have found little support at the Maine legislature in the past, this year’s battle became urgent due to the new federal registry mandate.
A federal saltwater angler registry requirement was included when the United States Congress re-enacted the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act at 2 am on the last day of the 108th Congress in 2006. There is no truth to the rumor that good things happen late at night.
The new federal law established a “federal angler registry,” an ill-disguised effort to force every coastal state to create a saltwater fishing license. The law offered states the opportunity to create their own registry or license, as long as the registry met federal standards. If a state created its own registry or license, it got to keep any fees.
The purpose of the registry is to allow more accurate surveys of saltwater anglers by federal and state officials.
Originally the federal registry was to begin on January 1, 2009, but that date was later postponed to January 1, 2010. NOAA was authorized to begin charging fees on January 1, 2011, with all money retained by the federal government. Curiously, the law forbids NOAA from spending that money on saltwater fisheries programs.
Some Maine Senate Democrats reported that they’d been informed they could delay action on the registry until next January and still head off the federal registry, but that was incorrect as Colvin stated in his emailed message, part of which Trahan read on the floor of the Senate during debate.
The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which I serve as executive director, has been the leading opponent of a salt water fishing license over the years. But recognizing the necessity of responding to the federal mandate and anxious to avoid a hefty new license fee to fish in saltwater, SAM joined Senator Trahan this year to create the free registry alternative. A lot of people helped to craft the Trahan proposal, especially Colvin at the federal level.
A lively cast of characters offered testimony to the Marine Resources Committee at the public hearing on LD 1331, sponsored by Representative Leila Percy, and the Trahan bill, LD 1432. Percy’s bill called for a license fee of $15 for residents and $30 for nonresidents.
Supporters of the license included Marine Resources Department Commissioner George Lapointe, Maine Rivers, Maine Association of Charter Boat Captains, and Coastal Conservation Association of Maine. Senator Trahan, SAM, and the Recreational Fishing Alliance led the opposition.
The RFA’s New England Director, Captain Barry Gibson of East Boothbay, provided exceptional testimony, noting “it is doubtful (more money) would materially improve saltwater fishing in Maine because all the recreational species caught here (striped bass, mackerel, bluefish, tuna) are 100 percent managed by other entities.
“The real issue, I think,” testified Gibson, “is a needed sea-change in focus and attitude. The DMR has a pretty dismal record of responding to the needs of the recreational fishery, and in all fairness this goes back a decade or two beyond my good friend Commissioner Lapointe’s watch.
“Outside of printing pamphlets and regulations sheets, the DRM has historically done little other than place restriction after restriction on the everyday recreational public – area closures, gear prohibitions, and the categorical mirroring of almost all federal regulations in our state waters, with little regard for the resulting impacts on anglers and associated businesses,” charged Gibson.
“I’d like to see some sort of indication that this state truly recognizes the value and needs of its saltwater recreational fishery before asking folks to pony up $15 and $30 just to catch a mackerel from shore here in Maine,” concluded Gibson.
Senator Trahan’s registry would have been simple and inexpensive. In addition to Colvin, Trahan worked with Bill Swan, Director of Licensing at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, to craft the legislation so that it would meet federal requirements. Colvin confirmed that it did.
Trahan’s bill would have required saltwater anglers to register for free using the licensing agents or on-line MOSES system of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The registry would be available to both Maine’s Department of Marine Resources and NOAA.
Led by the Department of Marine Resources, opponents of the registry tried to add a $300,000 fiscal note to the bill, claiming the department would need to hire additional Marine Patrol Officers to check that anglers had registered. Trahan countered with information from other states that did not hire additional officers even after they enacted saltwater fishing licenses.
As the rest of the Northeast states enact licenses, Trahan pointed out what a great marketing tool Maine would have if the state continued to allow free saltwater angling. The Senator from Waldoboro effectively countered every argument against his proposal. SAM’s slogan was “fish free or die.”
When DIF&W’s licensing agents, including town clerks, complained that the Trahan proposal would require them to register saltwater anglers without collecting the traditional agent fee that is attached to DIF&W licenses and permits, Trahan added a $1 agent fee to his bill. Anglers who registered through DIF&W’s licensing agents would pay the agents $1, but anglers who registered using DIF&W’s on-line MOSES system would not.
Swan reported that the total cost of the registry would be just $12,000 and Trahan proposed that the money come from the existing $300,000 saltwater recreational program at DMR.
Both the license and the registry bills emerged from the Marine Resources Committee with the registry clearly in the lead with more committee support. But the two committee chairs, Senator Dennis Damon and Rep. Leila Percy, supported the licensing bill and their support proved crucial in denying victory to Senator Trahan and his supporters.
First, the House easily defeated the license bill by a wide margin of 96 to 45. The surprising thing was that 45 members voted to create the license, knowing it was unlikely to happen. Good luck explaining that to your already financially over-burdened constituents.
If you want to know how your State Representative voted on this bill, you can get the roll call vote by going to the website of the Maine legislature and entering the number of the LD in the upper right hand box: 1331. It’s roll call number 209.
Recognizing the futility of trying to enact the license bill in the Senate after the definitive vote in the House, supporters of the license set a course to prevent the registry bill from succeeding. Eventually, their only recourse was to refer both bills back to the Marine Resources Committee, killing them for this session.
That’s what the Senate did, but the House refused to recommit the license bill, so it is totally dead. The registry bill lies there, in committee, like something you can see but don’t want to acknowledge.
There is a remote chance the legislature will meet in special session later this year to deal with on-going budget problems, and the registry proposal could be revived at that time. But it may be too late by then to stop the feds from implementing their own registry. It will certainly be too late when the legislature meets next January.
Among the first saltwater anglers who will have to register are those who enjoy smelting on Maine rivers in January. It will be interesting to see how they react to this new federal mandate, and to the failure of the legislature to authorize the free state registry.
Part of this fight was about allocation of federal funds between the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Department of Marine Resources.
Anglers pay special excise taxes on their gear that go to the federal Sport Fish Restoration Fund. The money in that fund is allocated to states according to a formula, and Maine receives only the lowest allocation possible due to our low number of anglers. It’s important to understand that nonresident anglers do not count in this formula.
The feds base their division of dollars between the two state agencies on a national survey that is conducted every five years. The last survey, taken in 2006, estimated that 52,000 Mainers fish saltwater. That number was actually higher in the 2001 survey. So DMR objected to the 52,000 number and the feds averaged the 2001 and 2006 survey numbers for the purposes of allocating these monies in this time period. Otherwise DIF&W would have gotten more money and DMR less money. In 2008, DMR got 22.5 percent of the federal funds and DIFW got 77.5 percent.
Maine would have to sell saltwater licenses to 57,245 new anglers to bump the state up to a higher allocation of federal funds. These would have to be people who do not buy a license to fish freshwater. The federal formula counts anglers, not licenses sold. Someone who bought both a freshwater and a saltwater license would be counted only once.
I know this sounds complicated, but the bottom line is this: A Maine saltwater license would be unlikely to result in more federal funds coming to Maine from the Sport Fish Restoration Fund. And the split between the two departments would continue to be based on the federal survey unless the state petitioned the feds to use actual license sales and the feds agreed. The registry would have absolutely no impact on the distribution of funds between the two agencies.
I learned all of this from a series of emailed messages between DMR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that I obtained from the feds, and my own conversations with federal officials and Bill Swan, DIF&W’s Director of Licensing.
As is true of so many battles these days in Augusta, it all came down to money.