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Original Issue

Long cold war at the edge of the sea

Stubborn anglers still fight against salt-water licenses, but if they win they may lose the chance to keep fishing

The sportsmen above, struggling for casting room on a New Jersey beach, are salt-water fishermen, a naturally stubborn and optimistic breed of anglers who tend to believe 1) that the ocean belongs to them and 2) that it will always be full of fish. There are a great many of these tenacious types in the country—nearly 5½ million at last count—and the Sport Fishing Institute estimates that they are increasing at the rate of about 270,000 per year. Furthermore, they catch a lot of fish. In the course of a single year (1959) they caught 300 million edible fish—about 10% of the total caught by sports and commercial fishermen combined.

But in spite of their increasing numbers and the heavy pressure they put on the fish, these salt-water anglers remain the most thoroughly unreconstructed and unregulated bunch of freeloaders among outdoor sportsmen. Of the 23 states having ocean shore line, only five—California, Oregon, Texas, Louisiana and Alabama—require a salt-water fishing license. If this unrealistic situation continues for many more years, the anglers are likely to find themselves with very few chances to pull fish from their big, broad, but no longer accessible ocean.

Along the East Coast, from Maine to Miami, there are less than 250 miles of totally unrestricted public fishing lands. Access roads, boat launching facilities and fishing piers are badly needed for the public areas that remain. On the West Coast only 295 miles of shore line are still open to the public. And on both coasts there is a strong need for conservation research, pollution control, habitat improvement and law enforcement. Unfortunately, all these things cost money, and the best way to get the money is by making licenses mandatory for everyone who fishes in salt water.

Since the need for licenses is so apparent and so pressing, why haven't the other 18 states passed appropriate laws and tapped this logical source of revenue? Well, part of the answer is that fishermen, though not actually opposed to development and research programs, don't like being regulated and resent the bother and the expense of having to take out a license. "Fishermen are the world's worst when it comes to supporting legislation that will protect their sport," says Douglas Manuel, past president of Washington's Tyee Club.

"Salt water," explains one anti-license Washingtonian, "is the only free thing we've got left."

This kind of antilicense freethinking is typical of the intransigents, standpatters and know-nothings who oppose change as a matter of principle. It is also typical of the romantics, who hate to acknowledge that the relationship between man and nature (or at least between salt-water fisherman and nature) should be subject to rules and fees. Then, too, there are the dock and marina operators, tackle and bait dealers and party-boat skippers who feel that licensing might divert the less-than-dedicated angler to other pursuits.

Along with all these senseless or selfish objections there are some legitimate reasons why a few well-informed anglers are not wholly in favor of licenses. Mainly they are concerned about the unwise or dishonest use of license revenue, and they cite the federal duck stamp controversy as a case in point. For years wildfowlers thought that all duck stamp moneys went for the acquisition of new marshlands. Actually, up to 15% of the revenue was used for enforcement, and much of it was used to develop existing wet lands. On a more local scale, the Long Island League of Saltwater Fishermen fears that license fees would be used to benefit bigger and better organized groups of sportsmen, specifically the upstate fresh-water fishermen, who need money for trout hatcheries and stream improvement, and the hunters, who want to buy more public shooting lands.

A broom for politicians

In the state of Washington the locally influential Fishing and Hunting News opposes licensing on the grounds that the present state fisheries department is not only political and incompetent but is also heavily biased in favor of commercial salmon fishermen.

"Sure, salt-water sports licenses are coming," says the News' Washington Editor Stan Jones, "but not until a stiff-bristled broom and a ball bat are used to clean a very smelly fisheries department from bilge to poop deck."

Fishermen who object to licenses on these often very realistic grounds can take heart from what has been accomplished in the states that now require licensing. For example, in California, which has the most fishermen and the first salt-water licensing law (1913) in the U.S., salt-water fees are used mainly to help finance fish research programs. California biologists have already rescued one important game fish, the kelp bass, which was in danger of being fished out until the scientists stepped in. Through underwater observation, the biologists established that the bass stayed in one area, making them vulnerable to overfishing, and also determined that the species spawned only after growing to a fairly large size. After a daily bag limit of 10 and a size limit of 12 inches was imposed, the kelp bass came back strongly.

California also helps its fishermen by building and maintaining fishing piers. But the most spectacular project has been the creation of new, man-made fishing grounds. By dumping bargeloads of old automobiles and trolley cars into fishless waters, the state has built up a chain of artificial reefs which have attracted great schools of bait fish—and the game fish that feed on them.

A law for sportsmen

Texas, too, has given the salt-water fisherman good mileage for his license dollar. Like California, Texas uses its salt-water revenues to carry on a heavy program of research and tries to translate the research into sensible laws to benefit the sportsmen. Commercial netting for sea trout and red-fish was tightly restricted around Padre Island in 1955 and in Galveston Bay in 1959 so that the species could be preserved as recreational assets.

In the near future a lot of money will have to be spent in the other coastal states for similar programs of research, as well as for land and access acquisition—and law enforcement. A good bit of this money will have to come from salt-water fishermen themselves, whether they like it or not. A lot of them won't like it—but as Volney Benson, a leading sporting-goods dealer of Berkeley, Calif. and himself an enthusiastic angler, says, "It's ridiculous the way some people scream about paying $3 for a license, then spend $50 on gear."

Personally, I feel that once the license laws are passed the revenues in most cases will be honestly and wisely spent. And after some initial grumbling, fishermen will come to realize that they have finally accepted a program whose one purpose is to insure the continuation of their sport.