Saltwater Anglers: Paying For Conservation?

Recreational Fishing Boat

Ever since April 2017, when the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act — the so-called “Modern Fish Act” — was introduced in the House of Representatives, anglers have been urged to support the bill, its Senate companion, S. 1520, and the much more dangerous Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, H.R. 200. The latter bill includes some Modern Fish Act provisions among its many other proposed changes that would weaken key provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens).

Modern Fish Act supporters have gone so far as to claim that anglers, through their license fees and excise taxes paid on fishing-related equipment, pay for fisheries conservation, and so by encouraging anglers to fish more often, the Modern Fish Act is effectively a conservation bill (even though it would also lead to more overfishing and the delayed rebuilding of overfished stocks).

Chris Horton, Fisheries Program Director for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, said that “From 1951 to 2017, our license fees and the excise taxes we’ve paid on things like fishing tackle, rods, reels, marine electronics, trolling motors and motorboat fuels have resulted in more than $28 billion for fisheries management across the country—both for marine and freshwater fisheries.”

Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), took that argument a step further, claiming that “A sizeable portion of the funding for conservation efforts in the U.S. is generated by recreational fishing and boating…This makes anglers’ lack of access [due to science-based annual catch limits intended to prevent overfishing] particularly problematic. Without these anglers—who contribute $1.5 billion annually to fisheries and conservation through excise taxes, donations and fees—our natural resources would be decimated.”

Reading such comments, you begin to wonder whether our fisheries are caught in a Catch-22.

Should they be managed prudently, for long-term sustainability, despite the possibility that the stock could be “decimated” because some fish-hungry anglers abandon the sport and cause excise tax and license revenues to decline?

Or should they be managed under the sort of regime put in place by H.R. 200 and/or the Modern Fish Act, a regime that, according to Dammrich, would replace “harmful overregulation and unnecessary restrictions with practical management approaches” that “would boost thousands of businesses that are supported by saltwater recreational fishing” and keep excise taxes flowing, but would also increase the probability that stocks would be overfished and delay the recovery of overfished stocks?

The fish seem to lose either way. But before anyone despairs, they should be ask another question: How much of the annual $1.5 billion attributed to excise taxes, donations and license fees come from salt water anglers, and how much of those saltwater anglers’ contributions are actually used to promote conservation, rather than for other purposes?

Two recently-released documents might be able to provide some answers.

The first of them is a promotional report issued by the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), the fishing tackle industry’s largest trade organization. Titled Sportfishing in America, An Economic Force for Conservation, it made the assertion that “just by fishing, anglers are investing in their sport to assure that there will always be opportunities to fish.”

ASA tried to justify that assertion by writing

“Anglers’ support for conservation work comes in many forms. Most obviously is through license sales…Funds raised through these license sales support the efforts of the fish and wildlife agencies tasked with managing rivers, lakes and coastal waters, including stocking programs and resource management.

“Through the 1950 Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act (also known as the Dingell-Johnson Act), manufacturers pay a federal excise tax on all fishing tackle. In addition, a portion of motorboat fuel taxes also go to fisheries conservation and other programs such as new boat ramps.

“By law, these funds can only be spent on fisheries and habitat conservation and restoration and are distributed to states for that very purposes…”

That statement isn’t entirely true.

While excise tax revenues do support many fishery conservation efforts, they also support many activities that are of far more benefit to the fishing tackle and boatbuilding industries than they are to marine conservation efforts. Regulations issued pursuant to the Federal Aid to Sport Fish Restoration Act (Sport Fish Act) explicitly state that such revenues can be used to, among other things, acquire property for sportfishing access, build structures that provide sportfishing access (e.g. fishing piers), build, buy or improve boating facilities (whether or not used by anglers), and fund outreach programs that “improve communications with anglers, boaters, and the general public on sport fishing and boating opportunities,” and “increase participation in sport fishing and boating.”

It’s easy to understand why industry associations such as ASA and the NMMA might support such expenditures, but it’s not really honest to say that they have any bearing on “fisheries and habitat conservation and restoration.” They merely encourage people to get out on the water, and so benefit business, while not helping the fish or their habitat at all.

Sport Fish Act regulations also allow excise tax revenues to be used to “stock fish for recreational purposes,” which is also far better for the fishing business than it is for the fish themselves. That’s particularly true in salt water, where hatcheries are used as a tool that allows anglers to chronically overfish a stock, and avoid the sort of harvest restrictions that would be needed if fish populations had to be maintained through natural reproduction.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which aggressively stocks red drum, spotted seatrout and southern flounder in state waters, has embraced such use of hatcheries, saying, “Stock enhancement [from salt water hatcheries]…serves as a tool used by [that agency] to manage the marine fishery along the Texas coast to ensure that harvest levels are sustained and stocks are replenished. [emphasis added]”

Some anglers may like the result, and hatcheries may be good for the fishing business. But they are a tool for increased exploitation, not enhanced conservation.

Still, it is easy to see why spending Sport Fish Act funds on hatcheries might be attractive to the sort of people who are trying to weaken Magnuson-Stevens by means of H.R. 200 and the Modern Fish Act, since the bills they support certainly won’t do natural fish populations much good.

The other document that casts some light on the Modern Fish Act proponents’ arguments is the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation (Survey), which was just released by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The information that It contains undercuts the proposition that the Modern Fish Act, or H.R. 200, would be good for marine fish conservation.

The Survey reveals, for example, that salt water fishermen make up a relatively small part of the angling community. In 2016, they comprised about 23% of all anglers, made about 16% of all fishing trips and made about 24% of all angling-related purchases. Thus, when Dammrich states that anglers “contribute about $1.5 billion annually to fisheries and conservation,” policymakers need to understand that he’s talking about all fishermen, and that saltwater fishermen, standing alone, contribute far less.

Saltwater anglers purchased about $2.7 billion worth of fishing tackle in 2016. Since that’s the retail price of such tackle, and the 10% excise tax created by the Sport Fish Act is imposed on the highest wholesale price of each item, the taxable value of such purchases would be substantially less, and the revenues from excises taxes commensurately low.

Similarly, the Survey states that anglers spend about $565 million on licenses; saltwater anglers’ proportional share of that would come out to about $130 million. But that, too, probably overstates the actual figure.

While anglers in all 50 states have long been required to buy fishing licenses, that’s not the case in salt water, where licenses have been called “an unnecessary new tax and an infringement on liberties.” In New York, which hosts more saltwater anglers than any other state apart from Florida, some anglers’ outrage over “not one but five new or increased taxes targeting fishermen, boaters, and the $1 billion New York recreational fishing industry,” led the state to abandon its saltwater fishing license in favor of a free registry. New Jersey and Maine also have no saltwater fishing license. Thus, unlike freshwater anglers, many of those who fish in salt water are not necessarily paying their share of the conservation burden.

Given the relatively small revenue streams attributable to license fees and excise taxes paid by saltwater anglers, it is difficult to give any credence to arguments made by anyone who suggests that the conservation benefits that could accrue from H.R. 200 or the Modern Fish Act would overcome the harm done by the overfishing and delayed stock rebuilding that would inevitably result from such bills.

Any claims to the contrary should be viewed for what they are: public relations gambits by industry trade groups who are seeking to maximize revenues not for conservation, but for themselves.

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

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