The days of free saltwater fishing in Maryland are numbered. And that will be a good thing - for the fish in the sea and future generations of anglers.
The scramble is on in this state and eight others along the Eastern Seaboard to devise licensing systems that will satisfy the federal government's demand for a means to account for recreational anglers and their catches.
Fourteen of the country's 23 coastal states have recreational saltwater fishing licenses or permits. For those states, the new federal law means tweaking existing regulations to meet National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) specifications. But other states, ranging from Maryland to Maine, are starting from scratch.
"It's a big deal everywhere and many anglers don't even realize what's coming down the pike, even though we've told them," says Maryland Fisheries Service chief Howard King.
The rush to license was sparked by passage last year by Congress of a new version of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the nation's fisheries law. The law gives regulators more money to revamp the way ocean species are counted and requires a "registry" of recreational anglers in coastal states. The deadline for the registry is January 2009.
States that have their own saltwater license and accounting system in place by the deadline get to keep the money they raise to pay for in-state projects. Anglers in states that dillydally will be required in 2011 to buy a federal license - probably about $30 - and that money most likely will be funneled back to Washington.
However, the revenue stream is secondary to the larger issue of establishing a reliable census of what fish remain in the ocean.
Every time regulators try to curb overfishing, the off-shore commercial industry argues that while their catches are monitored, no such reliable count exists on the recreational side.
The only recreational head count is the Marine Recreational Fishery Statistical Survey, a nearly 30-year-old data collection program that uses dockside reporting and random telephone interviews.
A national science panel that advises Congress noted that the survey was being used in a manner that was never intended and called for an overhaul of the survey. NMFS has issued a preliminary 44-page report on improving survey methods.
Having better data in hand will give NMFS more clout when it tries to reel in trawlers. And by paying to play, recreational saltwater anglers won't be surrendering the moral high ground to the licensed commercial industry.
But there's also the issue of fairness in the outdoors community. Hunters pay to be in the field, and Chesapeake Bay and freshwater anglers pony up to fish. Why should saltwater anglers get a free ride?
The 2009 deadline seems like plenty of time to figure out all the angles. But in reality that's less than six months for Maryland, which requires legislative approval of any license changes.
"We have a short time frame," King says. "We will have to have a game plan by mid-August."
Officials from Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission will be meeting soon with NMFS staff to work out the broad parameters of a saltwater license and reporting system. Then, Maryland fisheries staff will draft a proposal for review by recreational anglers and passage by the 2008 Legislature.
No doubt, it will be a tough sell. Few people want to go from free to fee, and requiring a saltwater license will come just one year after state lawmakers approved a bill that will nearly double freshwater and tidal licenses on July 1 to help shore up the Department of Natural Resources' finances.
King acknowledges that there has been "historical opposition" to a saltwater license.
But the time for fussing is over. Magnuson-Stevens is a done deal.
I don't know about you, but I'd rather my money stay in Maryland.
For eight years, the volunteers of the Wish-A-Fish Foundation have planned a few outings for families with special-needs children.
Organizers of the next event, at Sandy Point State Park on July 21, have signed up 24 families and 27 boats.
But foundation spokesman Steve Johnson says they'd like a few more of each. Their goal is 35 families and boats.
Kids and their families get T-shirts and hats, a free half-day of fishing on the Chesapeake Bay and a catered cookout afterward.
"The bait, the tackle, everything is free for the children. We're working hard to get their tackle boxes filled with goodies," Johnson says.
To learn more about the non-profit group or make a donation, go to www.wish-a-fish.org. To sign up for the event, call Johnson at 410-533-8672.