Lawmakers debate saltwater fishing licenses

Posted Jan. 20, 2010, at 6:40 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative committee sought common ground Wednesday on a divisive proposal to require saltwater licenses for recreational fishermen in Maine, one of two Northeastern states yet to comply with a federal mandate to do so.

But at the end of the day, the lawmakers remained undecided and were split three ways on the issue.

Supporters say Maine is under the gun to act now on the proposal, which was shot down last spring. Opponents view the mandate as an attack on a long-standing tradition of license-free ocean fishing.

“They hate the idea” of requiring licenses, said Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro.

Gov. John Baldacci has supported the idea of creating a state registry in the past, but is awaiting the outcome of the bill before taking a position on it, spokesman David Farmer said as the Marine Resources Committee delved into details of the federal mandate and how the state should respond — if at all.

The federal government is mandating the licenses, which are good for any state in the region, because it wants more data from fishermen on what they’re catching and when they’re catching it. The registry would give biologists better data on which to base fishing regulations.

Maine and New Jersey are the last two regional states without the license requirements. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands also haven’t complied. If a state doesn’t enact its own licensing program, U.S. regulators would do it themselves.

Rep. Leila Percy, House chair of the committee, has proposed $15 state licenses. Children under 16, residents 70 and older, and those fishing from charter boats would be exempt.

Percy, D-Phippsburg, said the state has every reason to act now. She said that while the federal government’s registry is free for anglers this year, it could cost up to $25 next year if the state fails to create its own — and the federal government would keep the license fees.

“We will not get any money back,” said Percy, whose proposal is supported by conservation and industry groups including the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Maine Lobstermen’s Association, Coastal Conservation Association, Maine Rivers, Natural Resources Council of Maine and The Nature Conservancy.

Trahan said the urgency of the issue is overstated. He proposed letting the federal government go ahead with its registry this year and have lawmakers come back next session with a bill to address the matter, and especially the costs of enforcement, fish restoration and managing a state registry.

In a series of votes that each failed to draw a majority, committee members considered a version of Percy’s bill that would reduce residential license fees from $15 to $5, an amended version of Trahan’s bill and taking no action at all. Further committee action is expected.

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