By Ted Venker
Coastal Conservation Association
A half-dozen years ago, I went fishing in Florida with a family friend who had moved to the Naples area. He reminded me the day before the trip to get a fishing license, warning that we could count on being stopped by Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission officers at least twice during our outing.
I was slightly stunned. I had been stopped quite a few times over the years in Texas and asked to produce a license. I’d had game wardens go through my ice chest to count and measure fish. All the paperwork was in order and the fish always measured up, so it wasn’t a bad experience. On the contrary, game wardens are interesting folks to talk to. They always have great stories.
However, those visits weren’t anything as reliable or predictable as my friend was describing in Florida. I asked him what made him think we’d get stopped more than once during a one-day trip.
“We have a lot to protect here,” he said simply.
We got stopped three times the next day. By a different officer each time.
It is easy to see why Florida is regarded as the sportfishing capital of the world. When the nets came out of the water in 1994, the State of Florida made a commitment to creating a world-class recreational fishing destination. Total revenue for all marine recreational fishing license sales was more than $29 million in 2008, and it translates into a bulldog enforcement effort, complete with high-tech poaching stings and penalties that should scare an illegal netter out of state.
The results of that commitment are easy to see – Florida is a remarkable place to fish, and it is immensely gratifying to know that it is being carefully conserved and protected by the investment made by anglers with their license purchases. The same commitment has been made in places like Louisiana and Texas, and folks there can tell plenty of before-and-after stories about the difference it has made in their fisheries.
In these economic times, though, all states are cutting budgets, and fish and wildlife enforcement agencies are prime targets. Unfortunately, two recent examples of lawlessness and greed in our bays and oceans should serve as a warning that anglers should remain vigilant and committed to being the watchdogs for our marine resources.
In Maryland, an apparent army of outlaw commercial gill netters couldn’t wait for the season to begin to slaughter tons of striped bass, using nets that are not legal in any season. In North Carolina, recreational anglers recorded images of dead, wasted stripers turned out of commercial nets. Trawlers in North Carolina were allowed to keep 50 striped bass, ostensibly as “bycatch.” However, with rockfish getting $3 a pound, the bycatch fishery became a directed fishery, and trawlers dragged nets through any school of bass they could find. The biggest 50 fish stayed in the boat, the rest went over the side dead.
Recreational anglers in both states are frustrated beyond words. They have put their money into licenses and rightfully expect to have better enforcement, to see better laws and attitudes, and to have their states take better care of the resources and better care of their recreational angling communities. It was exactly the same in Louisiana, Texas and Florida when they acted to outlaw gill nets, fund better enforcement, and establish game fish status for important recreational species. North Carolina anglers invested about $5.5 million in recreational saltwater licenses in 2010 while Maryland generated $4.3 million from saltwater license sales in 2009. They deserve better, and they are pounding on doors at the capital to get it.
You have to wonder, then, exactly what message is being delivered in New Jersey, which recently chose to adopt a “free” recreational saltwater license. Or in New York, where there is an effort underway to repeal the saltwater license. Proponents of the “free” license in New Jersey claimed a victory against what they saw as an unfair tax. Some advocates even claim the “free” license will enhance tourism by luring in anglers with the promise of “free” fishing.
A local fishing group led the effort to implement a “free” license and is on record stating that federal funds should be used to foster and protect New Jersey fisheries. It is an interesting premise to rely on the federal government to fund the state’s marine resource management when local fishermen decide they don’t want to. It is also curious to rely on dollars from the federal government when not many recreational anglers are currently happy with how the federal government manages fisheries in federal waters.
What kind of management can proponents expect with a “free” license? Will the New Jersey Division of Fish and Game be able to fund a marine habitat program? Will it be able to build and maintain boat ramps? Will it be able to do research and data collection? Will it be able to find and stop poaching and other abuses? Will it deliver quality fisheries that lure in tourists? Will anglers there have any leverage to expect any of those things in the future? Is the effort to create “free” fishing in the Northeast likely to turn its sights on saltwater licenses in places where they have produced huge, positive results? Places like Texas, Florida or Louisiana?
Time will tell, but it certainly doesn’t seem like a very promising turn of events for recreational anglers or the marine resources of New Jersey. On the other hand, you could almost certainly fish there and not have to worry so much about getting stopped by a game warden. Maybe the trawlers, netters and poachers who have worn out their welcome in Maryland and North Carolina will find New Jersey a more hospitable place to do business as well.