Saltwater fishermen balk at national registry

Published 4:42 pm Monday, June 8, 2009

People have tossed hooks and lines into the New England tides since long before there was a Cape Cod Canal for Eddie Pachucki to fish in. So Pachucki, casting into the canal’s current for striped bass, couldn’t fathom why he’d soon owe the state for the privilege.

“They didn’t put the stripers there,” said the 31-year-old baker. “Why should I pay to catch them?”

Starting in 2010, federal law requires all the nation’s saltwater fishermen to be registered, whether they fish from a boat, dock or the Cape canal’s rocky borders. In most states, the registration will come with an annual fee of about $10 to $25.

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Fishery managers say the registry is needed because they don’t really know the number of saltwater fishermen or what they’re catching — but they could be reeling in enough fish to deplete popular stocks. A registry of anglers will help gather better catch information so fishery managers know if a species is being overfished and can make rules to protect it.

The new requirement has met stubborn resistance in the Northeast.

Of the 21 coastal states in the continental United States, five haven’t approved a registry:Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine and New Jersey, even though the National Saltwater Angler Registry was originally supposed to be in place in January.

Many fishermen believe the fees won’t stay low and will ultimately fund free-spending state governments. They doubt it can provide accurate catch data. They also wonder why they’re being tracked when their catch is puny compared with heavily tracked commercial fishermen.

Maine state Rep. John McKane, a Newcastle Republican who’s opposed to the registry, says it’s just not the government’s business to know who’s picking up a rod and heading for surf.

“It requires people to go and get a certificate from the government for something they’ve always done, free as you please,” he said. “We’re losing our freedoms, they keep getting eroded one by one, and this is a big one.”

The registry was mandated in 2007, when the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Act was reauthorized. There are various registry exemptions, including one for anyone under 16.

States get any proceeds if they design their own programs, which often involve collecting information for the registry when they issue a license. The fees pay for administrative costs and services such as public land acquisition for fishing. This week, Connecticut lawmakers became the latest to pass a registry, approving a bill that charges between $10 to $15 for saltwater fishing licenses.

Gordon Colvin, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration biologist who is leading the registry’s implementation, struggles to explain the regional resistance to the saltwater fishing registry.

“You know, I’m not quite sure of that,” he said. “It is odd. … Part of it’s a New England kind of tradition of free access to fisheries”

Saltwater licenses have existed for years in other areas of the country, and in the Northeast, sportsmen already pay for freshwater fishing licenses. It’s no different to ask saltwater fishermen to pay to access a public resources with money that will ultimately benefit them, Colvin said.

Bob Ballou of Rhode Island’s Division of Environmental Management doubts that sharp fee hikes or misuse of funds that some fear will ever happen, because fishermen won’t tolerate it.

“Politically, there would be a march on the Statehouse,” he said.

Today’s best estimates say the country’s 15 to 25 million recreational fishermen catch around 257 million pounds of fish annually — less than 3 percent of the 9.4 billion pounds that commercial fishermen haul in. However, Colvin said that includes more than half the catch of some popular Northeastern species, including striped bass and bluefish.

Right now, a key tool for counting fishermen and their catch is a scattershot phone survey that reaches a fisherman on one out of 20 calls on its best days, Colvin said. The registry will allow the fishermen to be targeted, vastly improving the survey’s estimates, he said.

Colvin said there’s no advantage for a fishermen to hide his catch if called: If regulators get a false picture of healthy stocks, harmful overfishing continues. If regulators believe things are worse than they are, overly tight restrictions might result.

Cape Cod fisherman Patrick Paquette, who’s on a committee that’s designing the Massachusetts registry, says it’s needed, but admits ambivalence. He believes new numbers could reveal there’s more recreational fishing than now estimated, and lead to tighter restrictions.

“We will suffer from the new data, make no mistake about it,” he said.

Fred DeFinis, who fishes out of Warwick, R.I., questioned why any fisherman who believes, as he does, that the data will used to “bludgeon” fishermen will honestly report their catch.

“I’d probably be somewhat less than cooperative, only because I resent the whole thing to begin with,” he said.

At the Cape Cod Canal, Pachucki, of Raynham wondered why the government gave a darn about his catch, compared to a commercial fisherman’s. He said he might take home one striper a year.

A few hundred yards away, near the mouth of a herring run, Jeff Fish of West Springfield said he believes any new license fees would eventually get “sucked up in the coffers somewhere,” and not benefit fishermen.

As he spoke, standing over the gleaming silver, white and black of a striper he’d just pulled up, the 46-year-old Fish made it clear he’s not planning rebellion. He’ll sign up for the registry if he has to and tell the truth if called. He also made something else about the registry clear:

“I don’t like it.”