Another new tax is about to be levied on the people of Maine. It won’t be called a tax; it will be called a fee. But make no mistake, it is our government reaching far into our pockets to a place it has never reached before. Something that has always been free — fishing in the ocean — will now require a license.
For literally thousands of years, the people who have lived on this land we call Maine have been able to freely walk to the seashore and catch their supper or entertain themselves and their families by trying to hook a flounder or a cod. But in the year 2009, that wonderful, free pastime will come to an end and will soon require a license from the government.
The supposed reason for this new license requirement is more data. Specifically, the government wants to know who these saltwater fishermen are and where they are fishing. These data, of course, could easily be collected for free. State Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, has a bill before the Legislature to do just that. But the fed-eral National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is pressuring states to license saltwater anglers to “ensure sustainable fisheries.”
A bill to establish such licensing failed in the last Legislature, but the Department of Marine Resources is introducing similar legislation again. The license would cost $15 to $25 annually, bringing in roughly $3 million or more a year to the department. But remember, it’s all for the data.
This new expense couldn’t come at a worse time for the people of our state. Unemployment is rising rapidly and basic living costs, such as food prices, traveling expenses and health care are going up as well. But this revenue windfall couldn’t come at a better time for state government and its big budget deficits. Bureaucrats are scrambling to protect their slice of the budget pie.
Many Mainers will simply give up this beloved pastime and sever their only tie to the sea. Some will break the law and continue to fish the way they always have. And others will shell out the extra cash to the government. A family from Lewiston, for instance, which goes to the coast once a year will have to cough up an extra $50 for their trip. This is $50 that won’t be spent at a restaurant, a marina or at a seaside shop.
Several prominent Augusta bureaucrats are in favor of this new fee. When questioned, their predictable first response is: “We have a freshwater fishing license. Why shouldn’t we have a saltwater fishing license?” For one thing, there is almost no comparison between fresh and salt water. It is like comparing the Amazon rain forest to a potted plant. Our freshwater streams and ponds are a billion times smaller than the ocean and are very fragile. Anglers can and do have a profound effect on these easily unbalanced ecosystems.
Also, we do little fish stocking of the ocean and the results of the experimental stocking we have done have been marginal at best. Fish stocking is a large part of what freshwater licenses pay for. And finally, there are no commercial fisheries in fresh water. Our many gigantic saltwater fisheries pay millions in taxes and fees to the Department of Marine Resources already — and contribute volumes of data, too.
Another response from licensing proponents is this one: “The Feds are going to do it anyway so we might as well get the revenue.” That is not necessarily so. It is quite clear that the federal government is not eager to implement and enforce such a registry for all coastal waters. They are counting on the states doing the work, and the idea of extra revenue to depleted state coffers helps sell the idea. And another thing: Just because they are going to grab money from our residents doesn’t mean it is right to do so.
The bottom line is we don’t need to charge a fee, especially if we comply with the need for data. The best things in life are free, but we could be losing another one of them soon. We don’t have to. We can give the federal government the data it demands and keep fishing in the ocean free, as it always has been.
Jonathan McKane, a Republican from Newcastle, represents District 51, Edgecomb, Newcastle, Damariscotta, Bristol, South Bristol and Monhegan Plantation, in the Maine House of Representatives. He is a member of the Marine Resources Committee.