Red herring veto

by by Maggie Lange

In an effort to help the Ocean State stay true to its name, Governor Carcieri vetoed legislation last week to impose an annual fee on saltwater fishing, declaring fishing a “Rhode Island birthright.” The General Assembly had approved the $7 annual license fee for oceanic recreational fishing two weeks ago. The Rhode Island licensing fee would have been a precedent-setting law: the first licensing fee for saltwater fishermen in the history of Rhode Island.

However, if the Governor’s aim was to help anglers, it appears his veto was grossly under-researched. The US Congress passed a bill that would require fishers from any state without its own licensing to submit to federal licensing, to curb overfishing and environmental intrusion. Most West Coast and Southern states already had licenses; most Northeast states responded by imposing their own. Rhode Island’s rejected $7 fee would be the cheapest fishing license in the country.

However, without the $7 state license, Rhode Island fishers will have to pay the federal $25, staring in January 2011. Gail Mastrati, the spokesperson from Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management, explained that before the fee is imposed, “the state will use this window of time to explore other option.”

Governor Carcieri used the 10th Amendment to argue his veto; licensing anglers is neither an explicit state right not a federal right. He explained in his veto message, “This is the Ocean State. It is a place where people have been free, up to now, to cast a line into Narragansett Bay without government intrusion.” However, the federal fee is inevitable if Rhode Island doesn’t institute a licensing system.

Stephen Medeiros is the president of the biggest group of recreational saltwater fishermen in the state; the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association represents the estimated 300,000 marine fisherman in the Ocean State. He explained that in a “perfect world, we would want no fee. But, we would much rather have a $7 fee than have to pay for a federal licensing.” His group disagrees with Carcieri and hopes that the law will be overturned next year when the governor’s term is up. Medeiros says the only supporters of the veto were “not educated. But after January 2011, when the $25 fee kicks in, we’ll see how many people will raise a ruckus.”

He explained that the proximity of Rhode Island to Massachusetts and Connecticut makes ocean fishing more complicated. Previously, the states had a “gentlemen’s agreement” to honor each other’s anglers’ rights. Now that Rhode Island doesn’t have a state licensing process the agreement is void. Medieros said if you start adding up the cost of the federal license, $25, and then either Connecticut’s or Massachusetts’ licenses, this could cost an angler upwards of $60.

The requirement to buy a federal license could deter people from visiting Rhode Island. The National Marine Fishing Services estimates that about 60 percent of people fishing in the Ocean State are from out of state. While the numerous marinas, Block Island, Narragansett Bay, and the striped bass previously reeled in anglers, the expensive federal fee might encourage visitors to choose friendlier waters.