Predictions that a free saltwater fishing registry would bankrupt New Jersey’s marine fisheries programs and lead to closing of important fisheries have proved inaccurate.

So, too, however, have predictions that a mandatory angler registration program would create a wealth of new fisheries data and make it easier for regulators to manage fish stocks.

A 2006 federal law mandated the registry but left it up to the states whether to charge a fee. That led to a debate that lasted several years before the state created a free registry.

Now in its second year, the program is much cheaper than many predicted — $73,600 last year — compared with original estimates of $2 million, according to the state Office of Legislative Services.

The registry was the result of legislation by state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, who argued that free registration would keep costs down, while a fee would have created compliance issues and led directly to extra costs to enforce the program.

So far, one of the big revelations of the registry may be that there are fewer recreational anglers than officials thought.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service several years ago estimated there were 496,000 anglers in New Jersey, while the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistical Survey estimated double that. Based on the Fish and Wildlife estimate, the state had originally envisioned a $15 fee raising $7.4 million per year. That would have been more than enough to run the program.

But Brandan Muffley, head of the state Bureau of Marine Fisheries, said 241,025 anglers registered in 2011 and 242,887 registered this year. Muffley said some anglers still have not registered and that those fishing on party and charter boats don’t have to register. That is part of the discrepancy. Vessel owners do register — 1,013 in 2011 and 1,060 this year — but anglers fishing on these boats do not.

Anglers younger than 16 also don’t register, so that could account for some of the discrepancy.

Proponents of charging a fee had argued that without it the state would not have the money to collect data and would have to close fisheries. That has happened with only two fairly insignificant fisheries, river herring and shad stocks in the ocean.

“We had data on shad in the Delaware (River), so we left it open. We don’t have data on the coast, so we’re shutting it down in 2013,” Muffley said.

Still, Muffley said, cutbacks have reduced his staff by 50 percent over the past eight years, and he wonders how to deal with each new demand for fisheries data, the latest being the first management plan for black drum and an endangered species listing for sturgeon.

A national registry of saltwater anglers was mandated by 2006’s Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, following a study by the National Research Council that showed existing data were severely flawed.

The 2006 law called for a new registry system called the Marine Recreational Information Program to be in place by Jan. 1, 2009. The program required anglers to register either through the federal government or their state. New Jersey and other coastal states set up their own registry. Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands were the only ones not to set up a program.

The idea was to call registered anglers to get data on what they caught while doing better dockside surveys, said Forbes Darby, recreational fishing coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“In the past, we sent them out in the busiest part of the day and we missed night fishing, which in New Jersey is a big deal. This will be 24 hours a day, and they will have to stay at a site a certain amount of time. Even zero catches are as important as busy days,” he said.

But while the registry was designed to supply NOAA regulators with plenty of anglers to contact and interview, it is years behind schedule.

“They’re hopelessly behind,” said Jim Hutchinson of the New Gretna, Burlington County-based Recreational Fishing Alliance. “They’re saying they’ve sampled nine-100ths of 1 percent of the total number of recreational anglers in the United States and claiming this is a success in data collection.”

He said it should all be up and running by now but it isn’t, and that the NOAA is still using outdated data from the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistical Survey, including some that overestimate the number of anglers by more than 100 percent.

“They said it would work like TV’s Nielsen ratings, but up until last year they were still using phonebooks,” Hutchinson said.

Darby said the new survey methods at area fishing docks will start in 2013, and a full switch to the Marine Recreational Information Program system, including calling anglers who have registered, should be in place next year.

A pilot project has already used phone and mail to contact registered anglers while technology such as the Internet, smartphones and phone apps are being explored.

Darby said the NOAA is “following pretty closely” what the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the National Research Council called for.

“Experts around the world are working on it, and anglers are involved. We’re pretty confident we’re making strides. The hard part is communicating these improvements to anglers. We want them to know the information they give us ends up in a regulation the following year,” Darby said.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711