A Whopper of a Problem
When the watermen’s associations concurred with the legislation passed last May in House Bill 1372, they might not have realized the eventual financial impact it would have on their members. It has proven to be a $3 million whopper.
Under that bill, Department of Natural Resources’ costs for administration and enforcement would be paid for by the recreational and commercial fishing sectors, each covering its own area.
The recreational sector is composed of more than 300,000 individual anglers who have accepted a number of increases in licensing fees over the last few years. This sector now annually generates more than enough funds to pay for its share of DNR administrative costs in 2013.
The rockfish bite along the Western Shore of the Chesapeake has been decidedly difficult. The Eastern Shore, however, has reportedly been much kinder. The mouth of the Chester has been producing some nice fish for individual anglers, with waters to the south of Kent Island offering the majority of the good fishing.
Resident Canada goose: thru Sept. 25
Maryland watermen number some 5,500, with roughly one out of four active full time and dependent on the activity for their livelihood. Having avoided licensing fee increases for 15 years, this sector now finds itself in quite a financial fix.
Commercial license fees generate scarcely 60 percent of the operating costs of DNR’s commercial programs, leaving a $3 million shortfall. On a simple per-capita basis, watermen are facing an increase of approximately $600 per license.
Six hundred dollars may not seem like a lot to business managers who have intense state oversight and pay for annual operating licenses. But watermen are not just any industry. With a heritage and traditions going back 450 years, watermen are a legendary presence in Maryland’s historical tapestry. They also carry considerable political clout.
The industry itself, however, is not a unified entity, which is another part of the problem. Essentially it is 5,500 highly competitve individual businesses, each with a sole owner and operator and a tendency to resent any state interference.
Under the best of circumstances, it would be a Herculean task to attain a consensus among this self-reliant group. The current economic picture is not the best of circumstances. The fact remains, however, that the commercial fishing sector has to shoulder more of the cost of managing the industry or suffer a reduction of opportunities. So far, DNR has made little progress in selling this concept.
The department has been holding meetings around the state with watermen to discuss the facts and explain the options. The options are few.
One: The watermen must accept the fee increases necessary to administer their various types of fishing: oystering, crabbing, rockfishing, finfishing, clamming, etc.
Two: The watermen must accept some reductions in fishing. One might be eliminating gill netting because of its high oversight and enforcement costs.
Three: Some combination of both options.
Progress in obtaining consensus has been nil. On the one hand, the Maryland fishing industry’s representative, the Tidalfish Advisory Commission, continues to question the reality of the $3 million problem.
On the solution side, the industry continues making concerted efforts to shift the cost shortfall of its management to the recreational side.
That’s unlikely to happen. Recreational anglers are reluctant to pay more when commercial fishermen are allocated the lion’s share of the state’s natural resources — all of the oysters and clams, roughly half the rockfish and well over half the crabs and other finfish.
In addition, transferring responsibility for commercial costs to recreations fees violates the essence of the recently passed law.
The clock is ticking: DNR must make its recommendations to the General Assembly for final decisions and action October 1.