Study: California experiences major drop in annual fishing licenses

Parimal M. Rohit

SACRAMENTO — Annual fishing license sales in California have dropped nearly 55 percent since 1980, according to the California Sportfishing League (CSL), despite census numbers reporting the state’s population increased from about 23 million to more than 38 million in the same period.

Specifically, CSL cited statistics from the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) showing about 2.26 million annual resident licenses were sold here in 1980, compared to an estimated 990,000 yearly fishing permit sales in 2014. DFW also estimated about 40,000 fewer annual resident licenses were sold in 2014 compared to 2013.

California is home to the third longest coastline in the United States. However, the U.S. Census reports about 5 percent of the state’s population participate in fishing, the lowest rate in the country. CSL reports there are more than 4,000 lakes and reservoirs in the state, plus the Pacific Ocean and thousands of rivers and streams.

One of the biggest factors in the decline, according to CSL Executive Director Marko Mlikotin, is increasing license rates. Mlikotin pointed to findings of the CSL study in making his case.

“The cost of fishing licenses has really fired people up,” said Mlikotin, adding lack of access has also been an issue. “There is really an unprecedented decline in fishing participation.”

CSL was prompted to look into the state of fishing licenses in California after anglers consistently complained of access and pricing on the group’s Facebook page, Mlikotin said. Accordingly, CSL sought to answer a few questions with its study, aiming to find out whether fishing in California was more expensive than other states and if anglers faced barriers discouraging participation.

“California’s recreational anglers have become increasingly frustrated with the state for increasing the cost of fishing, all the while imposing greater barriers to access, and constantly adding new and burdensome regulations,” the study, which was released March 23, stated.

The CSL study found Californians spent 66 percent more than the average fishing license cost for all coastal states (76 percent more when compared to all states).

“In 1980, California’s annual fishing license fee was a mere $5. Today, California’s annual resident fishing license is the second highest in the Country, at $47.01 for a base ‘annual’ license, excluding permits and stamps that a substantial number of anglers are required to purchase throughout the year,” the study found. “If an angler purchased every available permit and stamp to catch all the various fish in California, fees could exceed $120 per calendar year. The price to fish for a family of four, excluding cost for tackle, transportation, food or lodging can easily cost several hundred dollars or more.”

Interestingly enough, California ranks second to Washington State for the “priciest fishing license,” according to the CSL study.

Beyond cost, CSL’s study pointed out how California defines “annual permit” is also a barrier. Fishing permits are issued on a calendar year basis, according to the CSL study. Accordingly, if a California angler purchases an annual permit Jan. 1, 2015, it will be valid until Dec. 31, 2015. If another angler purchases the same type of annual permit Dec. 30, 2015, it would expire the next day.

“While 13 other coastal states practice such a calendar system, their annual fees are significantly less expensive, with one state offering a calendar year fishing license for a mere $8.50,” the CSL study revealed. “In fact, when compared to all states offering a calendar year license, California’s license costs 84 percent above the national average price ($25.52).”

South Carolina recently switched from a calendar year system to issuing licenses for 12-month periods. While no data is available to determine whether the switch has impacted fishing participation, Mlikotin said issuing licenses with a Dec. 31 expiry date, regardless of when purchased, is a significant barrier.

“No matter when the fishing license is purchased, it expired Dec. 31 of every year. It’s an antiquated system. There’s no incentive to purchase a fishing license if it’s going to expire in a few months,” Mlikotin said.

CSL stated other potential issues anglers face include the cost of two-day licenses, an inability to purchase saltwater or freshwater licenses separately and requiring multiple permits.

“Even if a California angler is cost conscious or fishes infrequently, California’s two-day license costs $23.50 (not including additional permits/stamps), or more than the annual resident license offered in 19 other states,” the study found.

Also according to the study, CSL found only 6 percent of the California population (age 16 or older) participated in fishing activity in 2011, the lowest rate in the country. Nevada (8 percent) was the only other state with less than 10 percent of its population 16 and older participating in fishing activity.

Alaska had the highest angler participation in the country, with an estimated 41 percent of its population 16 and older fishing in its waterways.

“If the State of California sees the value of recreational fishing and outdoor tourism, it needs to offer a better value and remove unwarranted barriers to access in order to pull fishing participation out of its inevitable death spiral,” CSL stated in its study. “The Department of Fish and Wildlife should conduct a full evaluation of its current licensing structure in order to develop a new one that not only ensures that recreational fishing is affordable and accessible, but also supports fishing and wildlife programs for years to come. With even lower participation rates anticipated in the immediate future, fewer anglers will be financing fish stocking and conservation programs that are becoming more costly.”

Mlikotin said the recreational fishing industry contributes more than $4.9 billion annually to California’s economy, supports outdoor tourism and jobs and generates tax revenue.

The full CSL study is available online here.

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