Resolution of Saltwater Fishing License Debate Delayed Another Year

AUGUSTA — Resolution of a years-long debate over whether saltwater fishermen in Maine should buy a license or report to a registry was delayed for another year by the Senate June 10.

Two passionately debated bills have been working their way through the legislative process all session. One of them, drafted by the Department of Marine Resources and sponsored by Rep. Leila Percy (D-Phippsburg), would create a saltwater fishing license that would cost resident anglers $15 per year. The revenue from the license would fund a range of programs that the department argues are necessary and beneficial to the sport.

The other bill, developed by Sen. David Trahan (R-Lincoln County) and supported by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, would create a saltwater fishing registry at no cost to fishermen.

Both bills are designed to fulfill a federal requirement that states produce better data about how much recreational fishing goes on in saltwater. Saltwater fishing in Maine is free and no concrete data is kept about how many fishermen there are.

Trahan’s bill was recently given initial passage in the House, but the Senate on June 10 voted 19-16 to recommit it to the Marine Resources Committee. Sen. Dennis Damon (D-Hancock County), the Senate chairman of the committee, who made the motion, expected the same thing to happen to Percy’s bill. That means the committee, which initially supported Trahan’s bill, will reconsider both measures when the Legislature reconvenes in January. The Senate vote was along party lines except for Sen. Elizabeth Schneider (D-Penobscot County), who voted in the minority with Republicans.

“Both bills will come back to the committee to see if they can be melded into one,” said Damon, Senate chairman of the Marine Resources Committee, who favors creating a license. “It’s irresponsible to think that we could have a registry and not have to pay for it.”

Trahan, whose bill proposed setting up the registry through the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s existing licensing process, said that by delaying his bill, the Legislature has succumbed to the federal government, which will create a saltwater registry for Maine in January 2010 and start charging anglers to be on it in 2011.

“I believe we’re making a grave mistake,” Trahan told the Senate. “If this body does not take action, the federal government will do it for us. The people of Maine are being robbed of the opportunity to hear both sides of this issue.”

Schneider, the only Democrat who voted against sending Trahan’s bill back to committee, said after the vote that she did it to send a message to the federal government that it shouldn’t force its will on Maine.

“I totally oppose the whole concept,” said Schneider. “I’d like to really send a message to the federal government that it’s absolutely horrendous to require this. I preferred Sen. Trahan’s bill and I don’t want to succumb to the license fees.”

David Etnier, deputy commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, said he was pleased that the issue will be debated further because of “very problematic” issues with Trahan’s bill. In addition to the cost of running the registry, which the department argues are not accounted for in Trahan’s bill, Etnier said good things could be done with the revenue from a saltwater fishing license.

“We really as a state agency and as a state have never been able to do anything for the saltwater fishing community,” he said. “The license would have given us a dedicated revenue stream … to do a lot of good things.”

Conservation and enforcement measures, water access and species restoration activities would benefit from license revenues, said Etnier.

Percy said she was also pleased that the debate will continue.

But Trahan said that if the federal government creates a registry, he might not support his own bill anymore.

“What’s the point of the federal government doing all that work only so we can create our own registry a year later?” he asked. “I believe (the federal government) will follow through with their threat. I’m quite disappointed with how this has all played out.”

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