License in limbo
Sales of saltwater fishing licenses, created for conservation, have been disappointing
Javier Serna, Staff Writer
Despite high expectations, the state's new saltwater fishing license is not selling as well as state officials had hoped when they mandated the program in 2005.
In the first six months of sales, the state pulled in only about a third of what it estimated it would get from licenses during that period. From July 2007 through December 2007, the state made $2.1 million -- far short of the rate it would need to match the estimate of $19.2 million in sales for June 2007 through July 2008.
In the first 12 months, 468,692 licenses were sold.
The state legislature created the license to fund recreational saltwater fishing projects and develop a database of anglers.
But sales have been hurt by a number of factors, officials say. Many fishermen did not know about the licenses, law enforcement officials said from the start they'd write only warning tickets to those without licenses and many fishermen already were covered under blanket licenses at piers and on charter boats.
Jim Ross had no qualms about shelling out $15 for a year of fishing.
But his recent out-of-state guests were only willing to buy 10-day licenses that run $10 and stopped short of buying licenses for their wives.
"They thought it was too much," said Ross, who lives on Emerald Isle.
The funds from the licenses were not earmarked for any specific use, so the poor sales aren't putting the state in a hole. The license is a new source of revenue -- no license was previously needed for recreational fishing on North Carolina's coast. The money from sales goes into coastal recreational fishing projects and not the state's general fund.
State officials downplayed the shortage, but a vocal opponent of the license chided the state for the miscalculation and charged that the money isn't spent on conservation efforts, as he believes was promised.
"It was sold as one thing, and I think, a year later, the license is not at all what it was supposed to be," said Sean McKeon, president of the state commercial fishing lobby known as the N.C. Fisheries Association, which led opposition to the licenses.
A state-issued news release from November 2006 boasted, "In 2005, North Carolina had over 2 million recreational anglers fishing from coastal waters." There seemed to be plenty of people who would buy a fishing license.
But the state derived its estimate using a survey that was used to count caught fish -- not fishermen, said Don Hesselman, commercial statistics coordinator for the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries.
"It was never designed to count fishermen," he said.
Hesselman noted that the number of out-of-state licenses sold -- 154,519 -- fell way short of the roughly 1 million estimated.
"Nobody really knew how many would be sold," said license proponent Mac Currin, chairman of the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission. "I was thinking two years ago [when the license was debated], maybe a million licenses."
Bill Mandulak, president of the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina, a nonprofit group, said he is happy with the way the new license is working.
"Sure, we probably didn't have the sales of licenses that we thought we might have," he said. "But 2008 should be substantially greater."
Currin and Mandulak each said one reason the sales were down was because many people -- especially tourists -- didn't even know they needed one.
McKeon discounted that notion.
"So 1.5 million people said, 'I'm not going to buy a license?' " McKeon said. "The guy at the tackle shop didn't tell them?"
Currin said commercial fishermen opposed the license because they feared recreational anglers would gain influence with policy-makers if their numbers were monitored.
"They feared the political power that size a group might have in the management process," Currin said.
Under that scenario, fisheries managers might allow recreational anglers to keep more fish at the expense of the commercial harvest.
"It's used to promote anti-commercial legislation like net bans," said McKeon, who added this was a main reason the commercial industry opposed the program.
McKeon cited recent comments from the Coastal Conservation Association to the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which advises the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency responsible for managing marine resources. The CCA wrote "allocation should be changed in favor of the recreational sector."
But Currin doubted that recreational fishermen could wield that type of clout.
"That requires organization and a single-minded effort," he said. "It's hard to get a million people to do anything. It's hard enough to get them to pay $10 for a license."
Currin said while there may be 2 million saltwater fishermen in North Carolina, exemptions in the form of blanket licenses for charter boats and fishing piers -- anybody on the boat or pier is covered -- cut heavily into sales.
That gets to another of McKeon's criticisms.
While Currin heralded the program's ability to create a database of fishermen to survey, McKeon said the blanket licenses undermine that effort.
"Every time you add an exemption, you dilute the database," he said. "How do you have a blanket license for a pier and know what you're catching? I don't know how you collect data."
Jeff Cronk, a charter boat captain from Emerald Isle, opposed the license but has changed his stance, partly because of the convenience of the blanket license. For $250 a year, anybody who fishes on his boat is covered.
"In the original draft, there wasn't a blanket license," he said.
Currin said there are only 60 sworn officers in the state's marine patrol who are charged with enforcing laws throughout the entire North Carolina coast.
"They are understaffed," he said. "We need more marine patrol. We need more enforcement."
The marine patrol officers for the first year of the program vowed to write only warning tickets for first-time offenders, and, indeed, of the 4,849 citations and warnings the officers wrote last year, about 2,800 were warnings for not having a saltwater fishing license.
Ross said he was never asked if he had one. He fished more than 200 days last year.
"I hope they start checking more," he said. "That might be where the rest of those licenses are; they're just betting they're not going to get caught."
Misjudging the number of licenses sold means there's less money available than expected, but Currin said the shortfall hasn't affected any projects.
"There was no money committed until the money started coming in," he said.
An advisory committee was formed last year to allocate the money. So far, $1.61 million for projects such as printing the new saltwater fishing guides has been approved. As of the end of the year, that left the fund's balance at $2.78 million.
McKeon said that some of the money is going toward things he said has nothing to do with conservation, such as providing public access to recreational fishermen.
"It was sold as conservation," McKeon said. "It's not doing what it should be doing, and it should be repealed."
The state bill that mandated the license reads that the funds are to be used "to manage, protect, restore, develop, cultivate, conserve and enhance the marine resources of the State."
And many recreational anglers don't mind the way the money is being spent.
"At first, nobody knew where the money was going to go," Cronk said. "Reading how it's going to be put back into the fishery itself, I'm a little bit better with that."
Ross has no trouble with money being used on public access.
"I don't want to see the money completely tied up in bureaucracy," he said. "We need more accesses to the water. We need more piers." email@example.com
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A subsidiary of The McClatchy Company I like the part where it says the money really wasn't earmarked for any given projects or use. Now that they do require this fee, they better [dang] sure use it wisely and properly.......we are watching