A bill creating a free saltwater fishing registry was signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Chris Christie that is expected to eventually save anglers from having to pay a $15 federal fee.
"We did it," said an ecstatic state Senator Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic.
Van Drew, a sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said it will help New Jersey residents, who already pay their fair share of taxes, tolls and fees, from paying another user fee. He said the legislation will also enhance tourism by drawing in anglers from other states.
"I think it's very positive on so many different levels. For once, we didn't tax people. For once, we allowed people a break. It allows people to fish on God's ocean without being charged," Van Drew said.
Christie said the $15 fee the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is charging is an "unfunded federal mandate."
"Fishing from our shores has been and should remain free to our residents," Christie said.
Some anglers are concerned another method will be used to get them to pay.
"Free sounds good but nothing is free," said Jim McClintock, the vice-president of the Cape May County Party and Charter Boat Association.
"I'm really skeptical about where the money is going to come from. I have a funny suspicion there will be some kind of tax on something fishermen use because nothing is free," McClintock said.
Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, the agency charged with setting up the registry, said costs this year will be absorbed within the DEP's budget. Ragonese said costs the first year are expected to be $2 million at the most, since many anglers have already registered with the federal government.
Ragonese said one reason Christie signed the bill is not to add a fee on anglers, who already pay taxes on tackle, motor boat fuel and other equipment.
"The governor did not want to raise user taxes. Gov. Christie felt this was an unfunded federal mandate and it was just not proper. We'll find money in our DEP budget for this year, at least, to handle the financing of it and keep it free," Ragonese said.
The issue has been debated since 2006 when the federal government passed a law requiring a national registry of anglers to get better information that can be used to manage fisheries. The federal program carries a $15 fee that must be paid as of Jan. 1.
NOAA is allowing states to create their own registries. The state's free registry still must be approved by NOAA but the agency has approved them for other coastal states.
Anglers should be warned that the $15 fee is in place until New Jersey creates its own registry and gets NOAA approval.
The New Gretna-based Recreational Fishing Alliance, strong supporters of a free registry, praised Christie's decision in a press release that began with the statement "Coastal Anglers Will Fish for Free in the Garden State in 2011."
The RFA's Jim Hutchinson is hoping that press release proves accurate.
"With this law we have to start fast-tracking the process to get this done as quickly as possible," Hutchinson said.
Ragonese said DEP Commissioner Bob Martin told his staff to move quickly.
"We're hoping to have one up in place by early spring," Ragonese said.
Forbes Darby, NOAA's recreational fishing coordinator, said the issue "is in the lap of New Jersey." He said the state has to develop a program and sign a Memorandum of Agreement with NOAA before it can be declared exempt from the federal law.
Until then, Darby said anglers must register with the federal government and pay the $15. The registry covers anadromous species--fish born in freshwater that spend their lives in saltwater before returning to fresh water to spawn. This includes the upcoming back-bay striped bass fishery that opens March 1.
Darby stressed that anglers need to register even if they don't target anadromous species as long as there is a chance they will land them.
The signing does not solve a funding problem at state Division of Fish and Wildlife, which pushed for a $5 fee registry fee to pay for implementing it and other marine programs. The division had $1.9 million annually for marine programs but budget cutbacks reduced this to $600,000.
McClintock said his organization supported a state fee because of concerns that budget problems could close fisheries. He said the fee would have cost him up to $500 a year for his charter boat business but he still supported it.
"Marine fisheries is grossly underfunded. North Carolina gets $42 million a year for marine fisheries. I hope Christie has some money. Maybe he'll take some from the teachers and give it to us," McClintock said.
Opponents of a fee argued anglers already pay enough taxes. The DEP said saltwater sport-fishing provides 38,000 jobs in New Jersey and generates $1.2 billion to the economy.
Van Drew pledged to work with the division on a specialty license plate and a scratch-off lottery program to raise the needed funds. Those are taxes Van Drew said he could support since they would be voluntary.
"That's a tax on the willing," Van Drew said. "If New Jersey started with a $5, $10 or $15 registry it wouldn't be long before we had a $50 fee and some of the money, regardless of what they say, would have gone to everything but fishing issues."
McClintock argues lottery or license plates fees can also be redirected to other purposes.
Environmental groups opposed a free registry. Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club said a lack of funds could close shellfish beds and fisheries. Tittel said this would undermine fishing and possibly lead to contaminated fish and shellfish getting to markets. Tittel offered a compromise where each boat would need a license but not each individual angler.
McClintock said it is too late for that.
"It's a done deal now. Now we have to live with it and try to make it work," McClintock said.
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