The state's free recreational saltwater fishing registry is now in its second year, and - like that elusive fish that somehow avoids your line - so far the benefits and the problems that were predicted have failed to materialize.

The idea behind registration was to make it easier to collect information from anglers so that smarter decisions could be made about managing fisheries. A federal saltwater registry, with a $15 fee, was established in 2010.

In May of 2011, New Jersey created its own registry, so that state anglers could avoid that fee. In early 2012, lawmakers amended the law to reduce the penalties for fishermen who fail to register -initially from $300 to $3,000 for a first offense - to $25.

None of this was done without a great deal of debate and angst.

People who supported the federal and state registries said they would provide a bounty of new information to better regulate fishing stocks.

That really hasn't happened.

People who pushed for New Jersey to charge a fee for its registry predicted that without that money, perhaps as much as $7 million a year, important fisheries would be shut down because they couldn't be managed properly.

That hasn't happened either.

The program has been much less expensive than anyone predicted. Original estimates put the cost of the program at $2 million a year, but it cost less than $74,000 in 2011.

We're still waiting to see the big benefit of the state and national registries - plenty of new data on fisheries - because the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is years behind schedule for gathering and sorting that data. New dockside survey methods won't be used until next year. And even when regulators begin to gather data directly from registered anglers, they intend it do it by mail and over the phone.

This sounds kind of old-fashioned. But while it would seem to make more sense to use the Internet to collect data, one of the initial complaints about the state registry was that anglers could only register if they had access to a computer, something many of them said they lacked.

It's probably too soon to draw any conclusions about the value of the registry. And, in at least in one area, it is providing real numbers that are a stark alternative to guestimates.

One piece of hard data that has come out of the registry is that there are fewer recreational anglers in New Jersey than had been estimated. Those who fish from charter boats and those younger than 16 aren't required to register. Still, total registrations of 241,025 in 2011 and 242,887 this year are about half of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's estimate, and a quarter of the estimate in the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistical Survey.

That offers some hope that eventually the registration program will provide more accurate data in other areas and lead to regulations based more on reality and less on guesswork.


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