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July 10, 2003

Legislative Angling

Got an email from the North Carolina Coastal Conservation Association today, not that I was surprised. On average, I get at least one every morning, urging me to call my legislator in support of NC House Bill 831. It would require all recreational salt water fishermen to purchase a fishing license unless they are under 16 years of age, over 62, holders of another type of specified license, or are fishing from a public bridge.

At first glance the bill looks like something most fisherman would oppose. Many in fact don't, seeing a license as a tool to use against the well entrenched commercial fishing interests. The CCA, of which I am a member, having joined a couple of years ago in an attempt to get one of my friends to shut up about it, already, is primarily composed of recreational anglers. The organization's eventual, though unstated, goal is to severely restrict commercial fishermen in the North Carolina sounds, not that this has fooled anyone.

The CCA has been insisting for years that on a dollar per dollar basis, recreational fishermen do more for North Carolina's economy than does the commercial fishing industry. Licensing them would give the state the ability to start measuring this, the idea being that once the legislators realize the value of recreational fishing, the CCA could then push for restrictions on commercial fishing, most especially in North Carolina sounds, where many of the juvenile game fish populations develop. More juvenile fish in the sounds mean more adult fish in the shallow waters off the Outer Banks, waters where the majority of the recreational fishermen spend their time.

Commercial fishing interests, in the powerful guise of Senator Marc Basnight (D-Manteo), have successfully resisted saltwater licensing for years, and don't appear to be giving up now.

Jerry Schill, president of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, a commercial fishing trade group, said the changes made a bad bill a little better.

"We just oppose the concept of the recreational fishing license, period," Schill said.

There were two major changes to the bill, both of which favor the commercial fishermen.

One removed the ability of owners of charter boats and fishing piers to purchase a blanket license to cover all their customers, ensuring that most of them will now oppose the bill. The other change guts enforcement of the law if it does somehow get passed, as money generated from the sale of a state coastal recreational fishing license could no longer be used to hire personnel to enforce it.

No enforcement means that the program won't generate nearly the revenue estimated, which will allow opponents of the program to point at it a few years down the road, insist that it was bad law from the start, and push for a repeal, though they are clearly not expecting to have to.

The CCA won a battle yesterday, but it probably lost the war. The bill still has to get through the House, and if that body passes it, the Beast of Manteo awaits it in the Senate.

Now, even to me, the whole issue sounds as dry as dust. On one side you have well-off commercial fishermen pretending to the friends of the little man. One the other hand you have well-off recreational fishermen pretending to the friends of the little man. That's why the "fishing from a public bridge" exemption is in the bill. Poor people don't tend to drive out to the beach with their $200 casting rod when they want to catch supper.

Despite the fact that it will add another layer of bureaucracy to the system, I'm more or less in favor of the license. I only fish once, maybe twice a year, so the license cost won't be a burden, and the CCA's financial arguments make sense.

In the year 2002, 94 million dollars worth of fish were caught by commercial fishermen in North Carolina salt waters. Recreational fishermen spent more than three times that on gear alone, yet fish populations are managed on behalf of commercial fishing industry. This has put an essentially libertarian group of southern sportsmen, and if you don't think southern sportsmen aren't libertarians, try taking their guns away, into the odd position of requesting government oversight of their actions.

Forget the dollar amounts. That fact alone should illustrate how out of balance North Carolina's marine fisheries management has become. Commercial fisherman hold a monopoly on political power when it comes to the N.C. coast, and they aren't afraid to use to feather their own beds. An imbalance of power has lead directly to an imbalance in the use of the resource, and until recreational fishermen can buy their way into the legislature, it will remain so.

North Carolina's marine fishery will never be an open market, but a saltwater fishing license would introduce competition for the resources within it, and that is what has the commercial fisherman up in arms. It's not about feeding the people, and it's not about regulation. It's about money, and those who Marc Basnight represents will do anything to make sure it keeps flowing into their pockets.

Posted by Bigwig at July 10, 2003 01:28 PM | TrackBack
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