Fishing license sales decline again drawing yawn from DFW
By JIM MATTHEWS
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 with a huge yawn.
Near-final numbers show that about 986,000 annual fishing licenses were sold in 2015, the lowest number in over 50 years. That is down nearly 5,000 from 2014 and 45,000 below 2013 sales -- the last year over 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. But 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 wasn’t 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 over 2.2 million annual licenses were sold each year (peaking at 2,296,107 in 1981), the obvious question is why doesn’t the DFW seem to care?
The biggest reason is that the bean counters don’t look at number of licenses sold; they look at revenue. 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, the revenue has increased each year.
Total fishing revenue was $63,335,324 in 2015 -- more than double the total in 1981 when number of fishing licenses peaked. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that increase over the $25 million in 1981 is about what could be expected due to inflation and cost of living increases.
But that would also suppose the same number of licenses had been sold in 1981 and 2015. There were less than half the number of licenses sold in 2015 as 1981.
Back in 1981, the basic fishing license was just $5.75, while 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 licenses is $48.25 -- almost exactly double what it should be.
In addition, many things that were 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 the 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. The DFW plants fewer rainbow trout that it has in decades. It has little or no ongoing management of wild warmwater fisheries to improve them. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything the DFW specifically does for anglers today -- but the agency is happy to charge us 50 cents more for our license this year over last year.
The number crunchers might be noting that fishing license sales’ revenue is at the place where it is not growing. While there was an increase in 2015 over 2014, the number has been basically flat since 2007. Maybe it’s time they will pay attention, too.
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 that numbers of anglers continues to decline.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The DFW could implement a whole range of programs to encourage fishing in what may be the greatest fishing state in the country (almost in spite of the DFW). There is no way fishing license sales should be declining in this state, and the 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. The declines have to end. Here are three baby-step ideas that will help reverse the process:
-- License Costs: Since the 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. It could allow annual license sales to be good for a year from the date of purchase (instead of a calendar year). It could and should sell non-resident licenses at the same price as residents to encourage people from outside California to sample our spectacular fishing.
-- 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. The DFW’s urban fishing program was started to bring more people to the sport. That was a great idea that died a do-nothing death.
-- Regulation Roadblocks: The DFW staff needs to look at needless regulations that restrict anglers. An example is that crawfish, shiners, and carp 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.
Sadly, don’t hold your breath that the DFW will do anything to improve fishing license sales or do a better job for those of us who continue to buy fishing licenses here.
[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.]