Editor’s Log: “Fee To Fish” Talk Returns - The Fisherman

Editor’s Log: “Fee To Fish” Talk Returns

I have it on good authority that discussions are underway at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) about ways to implement a saltwater fishing license.  I’ve been around the block enough on this issue to say that the fishing license debate is about as precarious as arguing politics over dinner with the in-laws; but having been both personally and professionally engaged in the issue for many years I can also say with relative certainty that more saltwater anglers in New Jersey favor a free registry over a fee-based system.

When our federal fisheries law (Magnuson Stevens Act) was reauthorized in 2007 it called for a national database of saltwater anglers for improving recreational data collection.  States with existing registrations through licenses just had to ensure their database could synch with the fed, while states without a process of registering saltwater anglers (like NY, NJ & DE) had to implement a system by 2011.

During New Jersey’s deliberations in 2010, Trenton legislators tried putting Dave Chanda, then director of New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife and top license advocate, together with staunch opponent Jim Donofrio from the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA).  As memory serves this first attempted peace accord occurred during an Assembly committee hearing where Chanda backed a $20 fee to fish, while Donofrio stuck to his “no fee” guns.  In response, the committee chairman sent the two off to another room to hammer out a compromise.  Donofrio later told me that he offered to split the difference by agreeing to a $10 fee, but Chanda declined to budge by saying it wasn’t enough money.  In response to Chanda’s refusal to negotiate, the committee moved the free registry bill (A823) along to a full vote by the state Assembly where it passed 56-16.   NJDEP mistake number one.

During reconciliation of the Senate version of the bill (S1122) the Senate Environment Committee convened on December 9, 2010.  It was standing room only, and I remember Donofrio leaning in to me in that hearing room to say that a compromise was again in the mix, but this time at the $5 level.  I expected to watch the Senate Environment Committee go the $5 route, and when the NJDEP’s Deputy Commissioner (DC) was asked to speak before the committee I was pretty sure that was about to happen.

Attending her first Senate Environment Committee as new member that day was Sen. Linda R. Greenstein, a democrat from Monroe.  She led off the questions by first asking where the $5 would get apportioned inside the NJDEP.   No disrespect intended, but as a fairly liberal-leaning legislator I was pretty confident that Sen. Greenstein would be kind to the bureaucratic appeal for a new tax, so I felt that I was about to bear witness to the launch of a $5 saltwater fishing license in New Jersey.  But that’s when things got weird.

Replying to the senator’s question, the DC explained how $1 was needed to manage the database, with another $1 for registration fulfillment.  When Sen. Greenstein asked where the other $3 would go, there was no response, basically just a shrug of the shoulders.  It was actually quite funny – like sitcom hilarious funny actually!  Mr. Chanda clearly misread the tea leaves, sending his boss to the senate wolves hopelessly ill-prepared to discuss the issue seriously.  NJDEP mistake number two.

Once committee members finished snickering, S1122 was sent along to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee where it passed 11-0.  On December 20, 2010, the full Senate voted 36-0 in favor of a free saltwater registry; it was signed into law by Governor Chris Christie in February of 2011.

If my sources are correct, I imagine I’ll be writing more on this “overtaxing” legislative issue in the near future, especially if Trenton bureaucrats refuse to recognize their own obstinate mistakes of the past.   For now, register free at saltwaterregistry.nj.gov.

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