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Fishing industry splits DNR deficit with higher fees, new licenses

(Feb. 15, 2013) Want to fish? Pony up.

Not as much as had been feared, however, as legislation currently moving through the Maryland General Assembly – developed by a group of commercial and charter fishing industry representatives – seeks to distribute equitably the cost of closing the budget gap in the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ fisheries programs.

“Basically, the DNR fisheries service was facing a $2.7 million deficit, and they did a cost analysis and determined that, in their opinion, the commercial fishing industry was not paying their fair share through fees that they got through licensing,” said Gibby Dean, president of the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fisherman’s Association

“We’ve been meeting for over a year on this,” Dean said. “We wanted to be proactive, but we also wanted to be fair about it.”

During the state’s legislative session one year ago, according to Sen. Jim Mathias, budget work revealed that the DNR was facing a $2.7 million shortfall in meeting its expenditures. At that time, however, additional fees were already being levied on recreational fishing.

“So the state required the Department of Natural Resources to study existing laws and fees to make sure the commercial licenses and fees covered a fair share of the collective costs,” Mathias said, with the ultimate goal of “ensuring a good relationship between the recreational fishing community and the commercial industry.”

It was left up to the commercial watermen how exactly to split up the increased costs that had been assigned them. The current proposal places less of a burden on charter boat owners and fishing guides – annual licenses for guides will increase from $50 to $100 for in-state residents and from $100 to $200 for out-of-state residents operating in Maryland waters. A master guide’s title will be an additional $100, instead of the previous $50.

Increases of roughly $50 have also been placed on those catching seafood, including finfish, crabs, oysters, lobsters, conch, and turtles, for sale. Further fees have been levied on larger-scale crabbing operations, where additional fees will no longer have to be paid per crewmember, but fees for vessels with more than 300 pots have been added.

Licensing for seafood dealers – anyone who buys, processes, packs, or resells – has also been reconfigured, with the previous $150 flat fee now going to a lower, $50 fee for those also licensed to catch seafood, and a $250 fee for those being licensed as dealers only.

Of most impact, however, is the creation of a new, additional license on top of the pre-existing one. Known as a Harvester Registration, the $215 surcharge will apply to any license issued to a dealer or for-sale fisherman – not charter guides or boats – and will also feature additional per-species fees.

Not unsurprisingly, the largest of these additional fees – $200 – has been placed on striped bass, the regulation of which has likely consumed more effort from the DNR than any other type of fish.

“We recommended issuing a harvester’s permit card, which is similar to, say, what Virginia does to all its commercial licenses,” Dean said. “That card would cost $215, and that’s where most of the additional money comes from.”

The projected revenue increase for the DNR comes to $1.6 million, with an expected half-match from the state’s general fund and another $300,000 eliminated by reducing crab surveys. According to Mathias, the state provided a similar match when recreation fees were raised.

“The precedent is there for the $800,000,” he said.

Having the commercial fishing industry propose placing additional fees on itself seems somewhat counterintuitive, but given the state’s mandate to the DNR, Dean said it was simply a matter of how the hike should be handled.

“It was a good compromise, splitting it up the way we did with the harvester permit card treated everyone fairly,” Dean said. “The biggest problem we had with this was that, when they [the DNR] did the study, they assessed more of the fiscal responsibility to us than maybe should’ve been.”

“We don’t like any increase that’s not necessary, and our expenses have gone up like everyone else’s,” Dean continued. “But there’s several programs that would have to be cut, and we didn’t want to see any of those cuts because they’re for the benefit of all the people in the state, not just the commercial watermen.”

These would’ve included a reduction or possibly the elimination, Mathias said, of the public oyster fishery program, which sustains 250 oystermen with $4 million in commercial value. Surveys and studies on certain species would also have to be scaled back or cut, forcing more conservative catch limits due to the loss of oversight ability.

The proposal, in the form of an amendment to section 4-701 of the state code, has been submitted to the State Senate as SB 662 by Mathias and Sen. Richard Colburn.

“They brought forward their proposal, with the amount of effort they put forth on it this summer, and I reached out to Rich and we put the bill in,” Mathias said.

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