AUGUSTA, Maine — Saltwater fishermen in Maine will have to register with the state beginning in January under a bill that passed both legislative chambers Friday after debate that highlighted the often tense relationship between the state and federal regulators.
The federal government has threatened to require saltwater fishermen along the East Coast to buy a federal license — likely costing somewhere between $15 and $25 — unless states create their own recreational saltwater licenses or registry system.
Maine and New Jersey are the only holdouts.
Under a compromise reached in the state Senate late Thursday and approved by the House on Friday, all recreational saltwater fishermen in Maine will be required to register starting next year.
Registration would be free although a $1 or $2 processing fee may apply. Anglers who plan to fish for striped bass would be required to pay an additional $5 for a special permit or “striped bass endorsement.” That fee would be waived, however, for state residents who have purchased a freshwater fishing license.
Minors under age 16 and disabled individuals would be exempt from the registration requirements under the bill, which is headed to Gov. John Baldacci’s desk for his likely signature.
The bill, LD 1432, also allows fishing without registration for Maine residents on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends as well as on the Fourth of July.
Rep. Leila Percy, D-Phippsburg, said the creation of a state-operated registry system gives Maine control over both the licensing requirements and the resulting revenue. The proposed system is estimated to generate $1.7 million for law enforcement and fisheries management activities in the state Department of Marine Re-sources.
“This is a very controversial issue and nobody — absolutely nobody — likes that the federal government has created this mandate,” Percy said during House debate. But without a state registry, she said, Mainers would still have to pay to register — only the federal government would keep the money.
Opponents in both chambers objected to what they regarded as federal intervention in activities within Maine’s sovereign state waters. They also lamented the loss of the days of free fishing for “stripers” in Maine.
“It’s a sad day if we take this freedom of saltwater fishing away, a freedom that Mainers have always enjoyed,” said Rep. Jonathan McKane, R-Newcastle.
Supporters and opponents of a state-run registry have waged aggressive lobbying campaigns in the Legislature for weeks, and both sides have accused the other of distortion and misrepresentation.
Critics of the registry contended that there was no rush, arguing it would be better for Maine to delay and see how federal regulators respond.
“They can’t force us to do anything, and they can’t force us to enforce it,” Sen. David Trahan, a Waldoboro Republican and one of the leading opponents of the measure, said earlier this week.
Bill proponents disagreed, however, saying the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has made clear its intention to require registration this January. The agency plans to use the registries to determine recreational anglers’ impact on fisheries.
Supporters also questioned why the state would want to allow federal regulators to impose their own system on Maine.
“My attitude is Maine should take care of Maine,” said Rep. Robert Eaton, D-Sullivan, adding that the money will help Maine better manage its fisheries. “These resources are our responsibility.”
Bill supporters said they whittled down the registration fees to as close to zero as possible in order to minimize effects on fishermen. The proposal passed by both chambers even won a tempered endorsement from the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.
SAM Executive Director George Smith, who has maintained a constant presence in the Legislature recently as he lobbied hard against the bill, said he was “80 percent satisfied.”
“Now it is going to impact a relatively small group of people,” Smith said.
But the compromise was not enough for some lawmakers, who saw the registration system as just another tax.
“The federal government has dangled some bait in front of us to raise some money, so why not jump into the boat?” said Rep. Dianne Tilton, R-Harrington. “And trust me, it is all about the money.”
Rep. Charles Kruger, D-Thomaston, had a different take on the registry. Kruger said $5 won’t deter him from a day of fishing since he regularly spends much more than that on bait and tackle.
The money also will help DMR monitor and manage the river herring that are so important to Maine’s lobster fishery, as evidenced, he said, by the near-unanimous support for the bill among his local lobstermen.
Among the organizations in favor of the registry bill are: the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the Alewife Harvesters of Maine, the Maine Association of Charterboat Captains and the Coastal Conservation Association.