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Monday, August 2, 2010

BROKEN LAW, BROKEN PROMISE

"How did I get here?"

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimates that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 291,000 saltwater anglers in New York, whereas the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) pegs that number at closer to 874,000. NMFS of course bases their angler estimates on information gathered through the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Surveys or MRFSS, a recreational fishing harvest program deemed “fatally flawed” by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences.

A Connecticut study spearheaded by fisheries assessment expert Dr. Victor Crecco spotlighted this growing discrepancy between NMFS and USFWS estimates, comparing numbers with overall saltwater licenses sales from several Atlantic coast states. The report shows that MRFSS’ 2008 saltwater angler estimates were often “three to four times higher than both the 2006 USFWS estimates and the 2008 adjusted saltwater license sales,” findings which Dr. Crecco said “strongly suggest that the MRFSS has severely overestimated the number of saltwater anglers and fishing trips particularly in recent years, and by extension, has severely inflated the true recreational catch and harvest of all finfish species.” In other words, the federal government believes that we’re catching 300-400% more fish than we really are - this theoretical “overfishing” of quota is no secret to the New York angler, particularly when considering our state’s own marine license has generated only about 125,000 unique registrants since it was implemented last October.

At the behest of Congress, NRC convened in 2004/2005 to review the marine recreational fishery survey methods used by NMFS to monitor fishing effort and catch data in the recreational sector. Their official report blasted the current methodology of surveying anglers based on random telephone contacts, while recommending “the development of and subsequent sampling from a comprehensive national saltwater angler registry.” When the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was reauthorized by Congress in 2006 and signed into law by the President in 2007, it required the Secretary of Commerce to establish a national saltwater registry program which meets the recommendations of the NRC panel of experts.

The program, which according to the law may or may not require a fee as of 2011, would provide for the registration - including identification and contact information - of individuals who engage in recreational fishing in state coastal waters when fishing for anadromous species such as striped bass, shad and river herring, or when fishing out beyond the three-mile limit in federal waters. The newly reauthorized federal law also noted that the Secretary would exempt from federal registration requirement those anglers and vessels registered by a state, if the state provides sufficient identification and contact information of individuals who engage in recreational fishing, for use in federal recreational surveys.

About the time that Magnuson amendments were being debated in Washington, NMFS brought a series of national stakeholder groups together to review the pending registry requirements. In a 2006 briefing document on the saltwater angler registration (which can be found online by Googling saltwater angler registration briefing document), NMFS described the angler registry specifically as a tool to help increase survey efficiency and improve precision of catch and effort statistics, describing how the Senate’s draft Magnuson reauthorization bill had language that would set up an angler registry, which NMFS called “simply a list of saltwater anglers and their contact information, a virtual phonebook of anglers.”

A handful of groups involved in those early meetings came out specifically in favor of seeing states implement an actual saltwater fishing license in order to both meet the registration requirements and increase funding for fisheries management. NOAA’s briefing document goes on to list those groups in support of a saltwater license as being the American Sportfishing Association, Billfish Foundation, BoatU.S., Coastal Conservation Association, Coastside Fishing Club, International Game Fish Association, National Association of Charterboat Operators, National Marine Manufacturers Association, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, Pure Fishing, Sportfishing Association of California and United Anglers of Southern California.

A smaller, more northeast-centric corps of angling groups representing vocal opposition to the saltwater fishing license present in those early registry briefing meetings was the Jersey Coast Anglers Association, United Boatmen of New York and New Jersey, and the Recreational Fishing Alliance. The northeast opposition charged that a saltwater license was simply another tax on anglers, and noted concerns that collected fees would not actually go back into fishery management, while creating a confusing patchwork of required permits and licenses throughout coastal communities.

Perhaps bolstering the opposition argument, the NMFS briefing document states, “To be clear, a saltwater angler registry does not guarantee anglers more access or more fish. What it does is ensure that both anglers and fisheries managers have a complete picture about the scope and impact of sportfishing in our oceans and along our coasts.” Such a statement actually countered one of the key license arguments regarding power and influence. The bare facts were laid out clearly as one NOAA’s key messages regarding the need for a saltwater registry program stated the registry “is simply a list of saltwater anglers and their contact information, a virtual phonebook of anglers.”

While the need to develop cohesive registries that capture angler contact information was paramount to the program itself, heads of fish and wildlife agencies in states without an angler registration program wasted little time in reaching out to legislators to help drive the registry discussion towards the need for funding. Soon after the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was reauthorized, key fisherman-friendly legislators assembled New York’s recreational fishing industry stakeholders to discuss the benefits of a saltwater license. Many staunch anti-license participants dragged their feet at first, noting the earlier concerns expressed at the federal meetings. But with legislative assurances promising to hand-deliver a wish list to Albany, the staunchest naysayers acquiesced during these private meetings and eventually agreed to support a fishing license – but only if funds were dedicated to a marine account to help increase funding for fisheries management.

By the spring of 2009, the ‘wish list’ was delivered to Albany, and while these license opponents were less than thrilled at seeing a saltwater user fee come to fruition in New York under their watch, the core stakeholders slept better at nights with the promise by legislators that funding was to be dedicated specifically to the marine resource. When a new dawn broke, so did those promises.

In October of 2009, New York implemented its first-ever saltwater fishing license forcing all residents who fish the tidal and coastal waters to pay a $10 fee, or opt for a one-time $150 lifetime right to fish. The promise when this new tax was levied was that our community would get a whole new suite of services. However, once instituted, the Governor immediately offloaded the salaries of dozens of Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) employees from the general fund to the marine fund, immediately putting the account into a $2 million deficit. Meanwhile, monies collected through the lifetime saltwater licenses were then reallocated away from the marine fund towards paying down debt within the general conservation fund. Adding insult to injury, the very same, NMFS abruptly closed the recreational sea bass fishery for 180 days, piling a fisheries moratorium on top of the most restrictive fluke regulations of all of Atlantic coastal states.

The recreational stakeholders involved in the scoping meetings were incredulous, but it was the sportfishing community who hadn’t been invited to participate in the deal making sessions that was most surprised to learn that in addition to fishing closures, beach permit increases and park reductions, a new saltwater user fee was going into effect from October through November, with a new license requirement set to take effect that January. The double-whammy didn’t sit well with the masses. It’s even more offensive when you consider that New York doesn’t require license registrant to submit their phone number, clearly non-compliant with NMFS requirement to create “a virtual phonebook of anglers.”

Groups like the Recreational Fishing Alliance, United Boatmen, New York Sportfishing Federation, and New York Fishing Tackle Trades Association had recognized all along that this was an initiative which was doomed from the start, and clearly not representative of the silent majority that makes up the saltwater fishing community. While a small, vocal minority lobbied for a fee to fish in saltwater, the mainstream angling community exploded in protest within days of the new law, letting legislators know in no uncertain terms what they felt about the new saltwater user fee. Within a month of the license implementation, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer told me personally that he’d heard from New York constituents more on two very specific issues than any other– the healthcare plan and the saltwater license. Sen. Schumer was quick to react as the silent majority had spoken – without equivocation, Mr. Schumer agreed that the folks back at home wanted the license gone!

A few months ago, the New York Senate responded in a nearly unanimous 60-1 vote on Senate Bill 6250 sponsored by Sen. Brian Foley which would repeal New York’s broken saltwater license program and replace it with a free, federally compliant angler registration system. An Assembly version (A09234) currently rests in the Environmental Conservation Committee where it’s failed to move and probably won’t until some type of federal funding initiative comes through to support the program, estimated to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 per registration. By NMFS estimates the cost could balloon to $875 thousand to implement, while the more conservative USFWS estimate finds a free angler registry costing the state less than $300 thousand to implement. If you use the latest license figures from NYDEC which show approximately 125,000 unique saltwater registrants since the license was first implemented, the cost to register saltwater fishermen for free as currently exists in New Jersey would come in about $10 thousand less than the annual salary of a DEC Commissioner in New York, minus benefits.

The late Walter Fondren of Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) is quoted in the NMFS briefing document, “Regardless of how much money is generated or where it goes in a state budget, the most important function of a license is to provide a simple count of recreational saltwater anglers in a given state.” If that’s the case, then Assembly Bill 09234 to repeal the New York license and replace it with a federally compliance angler registration system for saltwater recreational fishing should be widely supported throughout the New York marine district.

Those who continue to support the repeal of New York’s broken saltwater license continue to hear criticism from those who truly believe a license to be a panacea for all that ails our marine fisheries – that includes representatives of the DEC now hopelessly connected to fishermen who suddenly have found themselves wholly responsible for DEC payroll. Those who would prefer to see this broken system continue ‘as is’ are quick to warn opponents “be careful of what you wish for,” while challenging our opposition view as short-sighted and failing to address the future of our sportfishing community. I’d counter that those license proponents are so blinded by an ideological quest to implement a license system that they’re willing to ignore the very basic facts – the future of our sportfishing community and the marine fisheries division of the DEC now hangs precariously in the balance because of how the marine funding is being used.

What kind of future does our DEC have when all salaries in the marine division are paid for by a saltwater fishing license? If license sales are off, will there be firings and salary freezes, or will fees be raised? When staffers retire with full benefits, will fees be increased to hire new employees? By using the license to generate marine funding to pay for salaries exclusively, our governor has ensured that license fees will increase dramatically in the next 5 to 10 years, which is fiscally irresponsible. The rug was pulled out from under the feet of the saltwater angling community, and DEC staff is now being held virtually at ransom while the license proponents shrug their shoulders and smirk.

USFWS says New York ranks ninth overall among U.S. coastal states in total retail spending in saltwater sportfishing, with over $373 million in annual tackles sales. Recreational fishing brings in tens of millions in tax dollars, and a 10% excise tax on all fishing related equipment is already paid by the consumer from the federal side. While we all understand the fiscal problems facing our state, the marine license was co-opted as a funding source, when a simple angler registry was all that was actually required. Before asking saltwater anglers to pay a second time, the state and federal government should be reinvesting tax dollars into maintaining recreational fishing infrastructure. Saltwater fishing generates a lot of income for the government – simple economics mandates that governments reinvest in those programs which generate a return.

So-called ‘sin taxes’ have a direct negative impact on consumer spending, which is exactly what we’re seeing in our recreational fishing community. Take for example Governor Paterson’s proposal to include a $1.60 per-pack increase in the state’s cigarette tax. Budget Director Robert Megna told the NY Daily News that "Increasing the price hopefully gets people to stop using the products," while adding "An added benefit to that is we raise revenue." When the Governor previously detailed plans to implement a 10% price hike on soda tax, it was a stated effort to raise needed funds while simultaneously cutting soda consumption, which New York City Health Department Cathy spokesperson Nonas explained "If the consumer sees the price difference when they're about ready to buy the product, we do see a reduction in consumption.”

Again, it’s Economy 101 – implement a fee, participation drops. And in terms of our recreational fishing industry and the economics of fishing in New York, we need all the business we can get. Hanging the “free fishing” sign at our bridges and ferry terminals can help put more money into state coffers by bringing in more coastal visitors and offering new outdoor opportunities, and in turn it will increase the number of fishermen on our waters. Is that bad? Perhaps some would believe so. Personally, I can’t help but think that some of the biggest proponents of a saltwater fishing license - including some well-funded conservation groups – would prefer to protect the fish over the rights of fishermen and therefore have another agenda in promoting a saltwater user fee. The most vocal pro fishing license arguments typically come from those who would like to see fewer fishermen on the water, maybe to protect the fish or perhaps more selfishly to keep the resource to themselves while forcing those less than fortune anglers out of the sport.

NMFS has failed to meet their requirements under the law; the patchwork of registry programs is not being used as intended, and the bureaucratic push for state funding diversions has apparently trumped the need for a comprehensive data collection program in the recreational sector. A system first meant to count the number of saltwater anglers in America and integrate a contact list to help improve data collection has been co-opted by bureaucrats and ideologues, and once again the New York angler is the one being punished. Albany needs to do the right thing – repeal the law, implement a state angler registry as Maine has done and New Jersey legislation is poised to do, and let’s focus on improving the data collection in New York coastal waters for the benefit of New York’s coastal fishermen.

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