STATEWIDE — The long decline in the number of fishing licenses sold in California continued in 2015. As usual, the news has been met by the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) with a huge yawn.
Near-final numbers show about 986,000 annual fishing licenses were sold in 2015, down nearly 5,000 from 2014 and 45,000 below 2013 sales — the last year more than one million licenses were sold in the state.
If there was ever a year for fishing licenses sales to boom, it would have been 2015, which had arguably the most spectacular ocean fishing season in any living angler’s memory. Not only did annual license sales decline, but so did non-resident license sales along with one-day and two-day license sales. The only increase came in the number of anglers who purchased ocean enhancement validation stamps for their license (going from 257,451 in 2014 to 265,533 in 2015). So if it were not for the epic ocean fishing the sales decline would have been even more dramatic.
When you compare this past year’s sales numbers to the peak years in the late 1970s and early 1980s when more than 2.2 million annual licenses were sold each year (peaking at 2,296,107 in 1981), the obvious question is why doesn’t DFW seem to care?
The biggest reason is the bean counters don’t look at number of licenses sold; they look at revenue. Revenue has increased each year because of built-in annual increases in the cost of fishing licenses, the addition of new stamps, punch cards, and then legislative-mandated increases in the decades since the peak in fishing license sales.
Total fishing revenue was $63,335,324 in 2015 — more than double the total in 1981 when number of fishing licenses peaked. The increase over the $25 million mark in 1981, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is about what could be expected due to inflation and cost of living increases.
This logic, however, assumes the same number of licenses had been sold in 1981 and 2015. However half as many licenses were sold in 2015 compared to 1981.
Back in 1981, the basic fishing license was just $5.75 and the basic license last year was $43.50. Even if you add in the trout stamp, which was “included” in the 2015 license, the 1981 cost was $9.25. Based on the value of the dollar in 1981 the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ calculator says the 2015 fishing license cost, including inflation and cost of living increases, should be $24.15. Our actual license cost (if you add in the ocean enhancement fee of $4.75) for an equivalent license is $48.25.
Many things included in the basic fishing license in 1981 are now additional fees. If you fish salmon or steelhead you pay more. If you hoop net lobsters you pay more. If you snorkel or dive for abalone you pay more. If you fish in the ocean you pay more.
Fewer anglers today are paying far more to fish, yet DFW has equal revenue. When you look at this carefully you wonder where the money is being spent today. Compared to 1981 the agency is providing far less for anglers. The state doesn’t operate any warmwater hatcheries any longer, so there are no more catfish, bass or bluegill plants to establish or augment warmwater species. Stripers, once a great gamefish, are now considered non-native, invasive species the agency would like to eradicate. Ditto for brown trout. DFW plants fewer rainbow trout than it has in decades. It has little or no ongoing management of wild warmwater fisheries to improve them. The agency, however, is happy to charge us 50 cents more for our license this year over last year.
Lower bag limits, more restrictive fishing regulations, water closures, restrictions on boat use fees on top of license fees to fish just about everywhere today, fears about the safety of eating fish caught in our waters, and so much more add up to continued declining numbers of fishermen. The DFW is the biggest problem, but certainly not the only one. The glaring fact is the numbers of anglers continues to decline.
It doesn’t have to be that way. DFW could implement a whole range of programs to encourage fishing in what may be the greatest fishing state in the country. There is no way fishing license sales should be declining in this state. DFW could start with baby steps to help turn this around. Instead of looking at the revenue numbers the agency needs to see if it is bringing more anglers into or back to the sport first. Here are three baby-step ideas that will help reverse the process:
– License Costs: Since DFW’s licensing system is now computerized the agency could offer first-time buyers a reduced price license as an incentive to get them hooked.
– Where-to-Go, How-to-Fish Resources: We have some of the best fishing in the country and the DFW has some great where-to-go fishing resources on its website (that most anglers don’t know about), but it should invest in more information directed at new or novice anglers aimed at helping them find places to fish and how to go about it. Then the staff needs to promote it constantly across all social and news media platforms.
– Regulation Roadblocks: DFW staff needs to look at needless regulations restricting anglers. Crawfish, shiners and carp, for example, are illegal baits in most or all places in the state. Why? They already exist in nearly all urban and warmwater fisheries and as bait they offer novice anglers the best opportunity to catch a fish. There are dozens of regulations like this that could improve angler success and/or access.
[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 909-887-3444.]