Cautious, curious or combative, last year many Mainers balked at a federal mandate designed to force 10 states to build a saltwater fishing registry … or else.
Now, with the federal deadline — Jan. 1 — in the rearview mirror, the state’s recreational saltwater anglers are facing the first “or else” stage.
Since the first of the year, anglers who fish in federal waters more than three miles offshore, or those likely to catch anadromous species like shad, striped bass and smelts in tidal or saltwater, have been required to sign up through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In the Penobscot River, for instance, anglers below the head of tide near Veazie Dam could catch stripers, shad or anadromous fish and must be registered as saltwater anglers through the federal government.
Registration is free for now. If Maine and the other nine affected states do not build a comprehensive registry in 2010, however, the federal government will start charging a fee.
Nationwide, 15 states require a saltwater fishing license that meets federal requirements. Ten, including Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, do not.
Many Mainers objected to the federal registry requirement on traditional grounds: The state has a long history of allowing citizens to fish saltwater for free, and changing that practice was unthinkable, they said.
Others opted for a wait-and-see approach, hoping NOAA officials would soften their stance.
“[Some] folks seem to be, ‘Let’s just wait to see what the government will do,’” said Patrick Keliher, director of the Maine Department of Marine Resources’ Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries & Habitat. “They’ve kept their promise on this. There will be a cost [beginning in 2011].”
Keliher said that cost likely would be between $15 and $25 per year.
Two bills debated in the Maine Legislature last year could have put Maine in compliance with the federal rule.
One called for a fee-based Maine saltwater license. Another called for a free state registration. Neither gained enough traction for passage.
Keliher said both were held over until 2010, and will be worked on again in the coming weeks.
Reaching an agreement, he said, is essential.
“We can do something and keep the money in Maine, and focus that money on things important to recreational fishermen, or we can let the federal government continue with the registry at a very high cost and that money will go into the federal treasury and we will never see any of it,” Keliher said.
According to the NOAA plan, states will keep any fee they charge in order to maintain their own registry, but will receive nothing if the federal government is responsible for registering the state’s anglers.
NOAA says the registry is a key to gathering better data as it manages the nation’s fisheries.
In Maine, most recreational saltwater anglers will not be affected by the registry requirements until spring or summer. Among those who will be affected more immediately are those who like to fish through the ice for smelts in tidal water.
“People need to go online to NOAA Fisheries and register if they’re going to be in a smelt shack, fishing,” Keliher said.
Keliher said the bill that would have created a Maine saltwater license would have removed that requirement, as long as anglers were fishing at a commercial smelt camp.
In previously published reports, some officials, including the top officer of the Maine Marine Patrol, said the new registration rule wouldn’t be actively enforced this year.
Keliher said that was likely true.
“Right now we have a Joint Enforcement Agreement with NOAA Fisheries that has nothing to do with the registry,” Keliher explained. “So until NOAA expands the JAE, we won’t be able to do anything [to enforce] the registry because I think the Marine Patrol is down eight officers at this time.”
Anglers can become part of the NOAA registry for free by going to www.noaa.com, or by calling 1-888-674-7411 between 4 a.m. and midnight daily.
MYFGA holding family event
If you’re looking for a fun way to spend a few hours Saturday, take a ride out to Maine’s Youth Fish and Game Association clubhouse on Pickerel Pond, where the club will hold its annual family ice fishing day.
Jim Redding of MYFGA said the event has been held for four or five years and become very popular.
“After the first year it started getting a little bigger and a little bigger,” Redding said. “We’re expecting around 200 to 250 people.”
The event will run from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., though Redding admitted some of the diehard anglers show up a bit earlier to get a head start.
Prior experience or equipment isn’t needed. Neither is a pocketful of cash.
“We furnish the bait. We furnish food. It’s just a family fun event,” Redding said.
Ice fishing gear will be provided for those who need it, and the whole day —including a lunch of hot dogs, chips and hot chocolate — is free.
While the club touts the ice-fishing aspect of the event, young participants typically find plenty of other ways to amuse themselves when the flags aren’t flying.
“Some fish, some slide. They can do pretty much anything they want to do,” Redding said. “It’s a good place to go.”
Ice on many of the area’s lakes and ponds is still a bit unpredictable, but Redding took a ride out to Pickerel Pond on Wednesday and returned with an encouraging report.
“We’ve got a foot of good ice,” Redding said. “On top of that there’s a little bit of slush, but with weather cooling down heading into Saturday, we think it will be just fine.”
Pickerel Pond is a shallow, 77-acre pond that holds plenty of warm-water fish, as well as stocked brook trout.
To get to Pickerel Pond, located in T32 MD, head out of Milford on the County Road. Turn right at the intersection of the Stud Mill Road. The clubhouse is three miles out, on the left.
Redding said families that can’t spend the entire day on the ice are still encouraged to stop by.
“There’ll be people coming and going all day long,” Redding said.