February 26, 2010

Like it or not, saltwater rule nears

JOHN RICHARDSON

— By

Staff Writer

Starting Friday, Mainers who fish for smelt, striped bass and many other saltwater fish will first have to register with the federal government.

Registering as a saltwater angler won't cost anything in 2010, but it could cost as much as $25 starting in 2011.

The registry requirement was set in place years ago as a way to collect better information about recreational saltwater fishing in New England and other regions. But it remains unpopular in Maine, where coastal waters have historically been open for fishing to anyone, at no cost.

''No one (I've talked to) is happy about it. I've been getting an earful,'' said state Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro. ''It's always been free. It's something that we all enjoy in the ocean.''

With the program finally kicking in, Trahan and other legislators are about to resume a long-running debate about whether Maine should set up its own registry or a licensing system similar to the one for freshwater anglers. States that have their own programs are exempt from the national registry.

''The National Saltwater Angler Registry will enable us to better estimate the health of marine fisheries so that we're able to preserve the pastime of recreational saltwater fishing for generations to come,'' Jim Balsiger, acting assistant administrator for NOAA's Fisheries Service, said Tuesday in a written statement about the program.

In Maine and other states, the registry would tell the fisheries service how many people are fishing and allow it to do more focused surveys to estimate catches and set conservation limits.

Under the new rule, anglers must register online or by phone before fishing in federal waters -- more than three miles from shore -- and before fishing in coastal or tidal waters for river herring, shad, smelt, striped bass or other species that live in the oceans but spawn in fresh water. Such fish are subject to federal oversight. Mackerel, pollock and some other coastal species are not covered by the rules.

Anyone who fishes without registering is not likely to be fined, at least not right away, said Forbes Darby, recreational fishing coordinator for the fisheries service.

''We all realize it's a new regulation. Some folks may not have heard about it,'' he said. ''Early on, the idea is not to penalize anyone, but to make them aware of what the requirements are.''

It's unclear what future fines might be, or when the agency might crack down on violators, he said.

The rule will be enforced by the fisheries service or the Coast Guard. Darby said he expects help from the Maine Marine Patrol, but the leader of that agency said it doesn't have the people to enforce the new rule.

''We're down eight people (over the last several years), and unless some money comes our way, we're not going to be enforcing it, this year at least,'' said Col. Joseph Fessenden.

State lawmakers hoped to avoid the federal registry by creating a state program, but disagreements about the details and who would bear the costs delayed passage of an alternative. The Legislature's Marine Resources Committee is now scheduled to take up two alternative proposals Jan. 20.

One, supported by the Department of Marine Resources, would create a state saltwater fishing license. The $15 annual fee for residents and $30 annual fee for non-residents would go to a new fund for managing saltwater fisheries.

Another proposal, submitted by Trahan, would create a state registry similar to the federal program, but with no fees required. Trahan wants the state budget to cover the cost, estimated to be $12,000 a year.

Trahan said Tuesday, however, that it may be best to see how the federal program works out before passing either bill.

Any state registry or license would cover additional fish species, such as mackerel and pollock, he said. And because the federal registry will set future fees based on the expense of the program, it might end up costing anglers far less than $25 a year, he said.

''We might be better off just to let this year pass without doing anything,'' Trahan said. ''Why would we have to rush in for a state license now if we fish for free for another year?''

The Sportsman's Alliance of Maine also opposed any new federal or state fees on recreational saltwater fishing. It's slogan became ''Fish free or die!''

Executive Director George Smith also said it may be better to wait before creating a state system that's not necessary.

''The whole sorry mess is driven by a federal desire to get better-quality data on what's being caught,'' he said. ''You can do all that without this registry. It doesn't have to be so costly and complex.''

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

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