Stand Up and Be Counted

By embracing a saltwater fishing license, recreational anglers become a force to be reckoned with in fisheries management.

Posted on January 24, 2004 by Walter W. Fondren III, Chairman of Coastal Conservation Association, TIDE

Walter W. Fondren III is one of the original founders of Coastal Conservation Association and has helped guide the organization to some of its greatest conservation victories. Under his watch, CCA has successfully banned gill nets in several states, won game fish status for several fish species in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Atlantic, established bycatch-reduction guidelines for the shrimp industry, and won a complete commercial net ban in Florida.

It has been proven time and again that our marine resources are not infinite. Efficient, modern technology is capable of simply overwhelming our oceans. Diesel-powered boats equipped with an array of electronic equipment, guided by spotter planes, utilizing monofilament gill nets, huge bottom trawls and miles of longlines have proven more than a match for many species of fish.
The New England ground fishery, for example, is a faint shadow of its former productivity, and there are indications that after decades of commercial overfishing, it might not ever recover. Locals recall a time when the ocean teemed with bait, fish, birds and whales. It is a virtual desert now in some areas.
When we first formed Coastal Conservation Association more than a quarter century ago, our goal was to prevent that kind of reckless abuse of our marine resources. In our early skirmishes with gill-netters along the Texas coast, we quickly found that the real power to conserve or destroy our marine resources does not lie with the technology. The real power in this battle is political.
The commercial fishing industry enjoys the kind of political power that comes from being a small, but concentrated source of jobs, economic activity and influence. Technology alone did not wipe out groundfish stocks off New England. Even after it became very apparent what was happening to the resource, the considerable political clout held by the commercial fishing industry for generations in that region allowed the destruction to continue almost to the point of no-return.
CCA has seen firsthand what a politically active, well-financed and motivated minority of businesses are capable of achieving in fisheries management. Often, millions of recreational anglers have found themselves on the sidelines as decisions were made that led to the decimation of some species of fish. There is strength in numbers, but only if someone is counting. The owner of a seafood company that employs 100 people has historically wielded far more power in the fishery management arena than a vast, silent, unknown population of recreational anglers. That seafood company’s payroll, landings data and bottom line provide a tiny snapshot of the value associated with a particular fishery, but it may be the only snapshot. That monopoly on information translates into political power.
However, CCA has found that recreational fishermen do have a weapon to level the playing field and provide a more realistic evaluation of our marine resources: a saltwater recreational fishing license.
Sometimes leadership means taking unpopular positions, and few issues have angered and confused anglers more than the subject of a saltwater recreational fishing license. CCA has fought for licenses in states all along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. It is a difficult issue, especially in the Northeast, and we have lost more than a few members over it. Regardless, implementation of a saltwater recreational fishing license is the most important single step that a state can take to conserve and improve its fisheries.
The saltwater license remains a bedrock principle for CCA and I firmly believe the benefits far outweigh the costs.
On the surface, it is very easy to attack licenses as nothing more than just another tax to raise money for the government. For recreational anglers, this is a much deeper issue than that. While some people see a license as a tax and others refer to it as a user fee, the fact remains that a license is a mechanism that enables recreational anglers to have a seat at the bargaining table when critical fisheries management issues are decided.
To argue against a license is essentially to argue for representation without taxation and, in this business, you get what you pay for. From a historical perspective, in those states where saltwater licenses have been implemented, recreational anglers have been able to achieve near-miraculous conservation victories.
It is not all uncommon for the commercial fishing sector to argue in public against the need for a saltwater recreational fishing license, only to have those same people dismiss recreational arguments before federal, regional or state regulatory agencies because recreational anglers don't "pay to play."
When 300,000 recreational anglers pay $15 each to register for a saltwater license, I assure you that we are suddenly major players in the game.
 However, the reality of a saltwater license is that the money it generates is secondary. The real value of a license is in the data. 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.
I have often stated that if you took all the money brought in by a saltwater recreational license and literally gave it to the commercial fishing industry, recreational anglers would still have the advantage. That is a shocking statement, but it is the truth. Why? Government bureaucracies tend to pay attention to large voting constituencies, and the license defines the enormous scope of the recreational angling constituency. Those numbers simply cannot be ignored in our political system.
Without a recreational license, the community of saltwater anglers and the millions of dollars they spend each year cannot be accurately established, and don’t think our opponents in the commercial sector don’t use that against us. A recreational license does not buy power or influence. It is merely a tool to reflect the numeric and economic reality of the recreational fishing industry in a state.
That reality, however, quickly reveals that the economic activity generated by hundreds of thousands of recreational anglers dwarfs that of the commercial sector in almost every state. The last thing the commercial fishing industry wants to see is a substantial dollar figure labeled “Recreational Fishing” in the state budget.
Perhaps those recreational anglers opposed to the saltwater license should check to see who they are standing with shoulder-to-shoulder in this debate. The most vocal anti-recreational license arguments are usually commercial fishermen. The commercial fishing industry rarely utters a word in protest of its own license and fee structure, yet it is vehemently opposed to a recreational license
Why do commercial fishermen, who will not be asked to pay one cent for a saltwater recreational fishing license, argue so strongly against it? Simple. For decades the commercial fishing industry has benefited from being the only paying constituency in fisheries management. They are all too familiar with what is at stake politically if they are suddenly confronted with a large, unified, politically powerful, revenue-generating constituency of recreational anglers. The days of thousands of commercial fishermen making decisions for millions of recreational anglers would be over.
Perhaps there is no better argument for the license than the words of Jerry Schill, executive director of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, a non-profit commercial fishermen trade association. Schill has been leading the fight against a saltwater recreational fishing license in North Carolina.
“Look at what has happened in the other states,” he said in the November 2003 issue of National Fisherman. “Look what the CCA has done with that license when it’s been put into place. In some states you’ve got fish that have been given ‘game fish’ status, taken off consumers’ plates. In other states, gillnet bans. And in Florida, they got the ultimate: a commercial net ban.”
Well said. It is as simple as that.

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