Anglers, watermen spar over fishing fees

Anglers and watermen are at odds, again, this time over fishing license fees. 

With the Maryland Department of Natural Resources facing a looming deficit in funds for overseeing both recreational and commercial fishing, anglers are pushing a bill that would require the state to cover 90 percent of its costs for managing each fishery with license fees from the people engaged in that activity.

They testified before the House Environmental Matters Committee in support of HB1173, while watermen argued that the issue needs more study.

DNR is projecting a $3.2 million deficit by 2014 in license-fee revenues used to manage fisheries. Recreational fishing groups contend that watermen aren't paying their fair share for DNR's expenses in monitoring and enforcing rules on the commercial harvest of blue crabs, striped bass and other fish. Anglers note they have gone along with - and even pushed for - increases in their own license fees.

“For too long commercial fisherman have paid far less in licenses, permits and other fees than is required to manage their fisheries,” according to a statement issued by the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland. “The result is that the general public and recreational anglers have had to cover many of those costs.”  Recreational license fees cover 93 percent of the state's costs of managing their activities, while commercial fees only pay 43 percent of the expenses of riding herd on them.

Their spokesmen sparred with Del. Jay A. Jacobs, R-Kent County, who sided with watermen: "You want to cripple a business that's already on its knees from regulations as it is." 

Anglers' groups counter that numerous and repeated fishing violations by watermen have forced DNR to increase its enforcement efforts and driven up management costs. Last year the state shut down commercial netting of striped bass, or rockfish, early after illegally set nets were discovered in the Chesapeake Bay.

DNR's fisheries director, Tom O'Connell, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation also backed the bill, though they urged lawmakers to drop the bill's requirement that 90 percent of the costs of managing each fishery be covered by license fees paid by those engaged in it.  They urged more time be taken to figure out how to balance costs and revenues.

If that's not changed, O'Connell said, the cost of a license to harvest crabs or catch striped bass for sale would soar by 300 percent or more. Commercial license fees range from $100 to $400 or more, while a recreational license to catch rockfish costs $15, DNR officials said.

Commercial fishermen, though, contend that their relatively small numbers can't be expected to contribute as much revenue as recreational fishermen do as a group.  There are about 135,000 licensed anglers in the state, compared with about 6,000 commercial fishermen.

Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, argued that the state doesn't ride herd on recreational fishing as closely as it does his members.  "They've zeroed in on us and let the others go," he said.  DNR's O'Connell said the state has suspended 50 or 60 recreational fishing licenses in the past year. He said he did not have current figures on the number of commercial fishing violations charged by the Natural Resources Police.

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