RFA Asks Virginia Governor to Return Angler Funds

   01.04.12

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Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell recently raised the ire of approximately 352,000 saltwater anglers in Virginia by announcing his plans to suspend the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament, a state-run program funded primarily through the purchase of state fishing licenses.

As reported by Lee Tolliver in the Virginian-Pilot, the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament averages about 5,000 awards certificates or plaques each year for anglers who catch a variety of saltwater species meeting length or weight minimums, and is staffed by two employees with an annual budget of approximately $200,000 funded solely through the sale of state saltwater fishing licenses.

Under a new 2013-14 budget proposal being considered by Governor McDonnell, eliminating the 55-year-old statewide fishing tournament would mean that license revenues could be reallocated towards other fisheries management programs currently being funded through the state’s general fund.

In a letter to Governor McDonnell on behalf of its members, the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) has encouraged the Virginia governor to reconsider the proposal to kill the longstanding fishing tournament, which they said has contributed greatly to the state’s tourism revenue through increased angler effort and participation.

“RFA and its members know full well that these are tough economic times which require difficult fiscal decisions on how to best spend taxpayer dollars, however, suspending a money-making state program like the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament will ultimately lead to lost tourism receipts, decreasing tax revenues, and more private sector unemployment,” wrote RFA executive director Jim Donofrio, while calling recreational fishing “a jobs creator” for Virginia.

A national non-profit political action organization dedicated to protecting the rights of saltwater anglers on every coast, RFA has staunchly opposed state and national efforts to enact a fee to fish in saltwater, referring to such money-making license programs as little more than taxes and tariffs which place undue economic burdens on coastal anglers while creating an obstacle for many citizens to access our natural public resources.

“License proponents would argue that a fee to fish leads to enhanced fishery programs, improved access to coastal fish stocks, and increased political clout for our saltwater angling community,” said Donofrio in his letter to McDonnell, adding “the recent proposal put forth by your office to terminate the 55th annual Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament is a perfect example of why RFA remains adamantly opposed to these fees.”

The Peninsula Salt Water Sport Fisherman’s Association of Virginia recently echoed RFA’s long-time criticism of angler license programs in saltwater, noting how state anglers had originally been assured by the state government that license proceeds would be deposited into a “a dedicated fund that would be used to pump additional dollars into the enhancement of Virginia’s recreational fishery,” explaining that promises were made “these funds would not be taken to pay for programs currently funded by the general fund.”

“Well that promise was broken almost as soon as it was made,” the PSWSFA said in the news update. According to the writer, Virginia had previously cut funding to the statewide tournament, forcing anglers to agree to support reallocation of funding from saltwater license proceeds towards the annual contest. “Later governors continued to violate the agreement with the recreational angling community by taking more and more of the license fund to replace general funds,” the PSWSFA update reads, noting further how license monies are also misdirected away from the state’s artificial reef program.

“These are the two most popular programs we fund with our license money. If we are not funding them, why have a license at all? The answer is that we should not, other than the politicians in Richmond now see this as free money that we anglers stupidly gave them. Can they really not see how they have violated their constituents’ trust? How did we ever give them that trust? It is now up to the General Assembly to make things right with Virginia’s anglers,” the PSWSFA noted.

RFA said that just after Christmans, Virginia State Senator Ralph S. Northam announced his plans to introduce an amendment to McDonnell’s budget when the General Assembly convenes this month that would restore enough funds to keep the awards program active. “The Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament is a huge part of why recreational angling contributes so much to Virginia’s economy,” Sen. Northam said in a release. “The well-run citation, Expert and Master Angler, and annual species swards programs greatly enhance the draw of fishing in Virginia for natives and visitors alike. That means tourism revenue and jobs, two things that we should be looking to create, not destroy.”

“Eliminating this funding is pennywise and pound foolish now and in the long run,” the senator added.

While RFA would love to see Virginia’s legislature respond to the license fiasco the same way as states like New York which repealed the saltwater fishing license entirely in 2011, Donofrio said he’s hopeful that some gentle pressure by the recreational fishing community in Virginia could help keep the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament in place through 2013 and beyond.

“The angler fee has not had a positive impact on our freedom to fish in Virginia, and the plan to suspend the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament while reallocating user fees to supporting programs once covered under the state’s general funding program will not sit well with our 352,000 Virginia saltwater anglers,” Donofrio said in his letter, citing a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2006 survey which shows that approximately $304 million was spent by some 352,000 anglers on saltwater tackle in Virginia alone that year.

“These are significant financial numbers which represent a boon to the state in terms of tax base and revenue. The suspension of the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament, which has contributed greatly to the state’s tourism revenue through increased angler effort and participation, is a prime example of why RFA remains opposed to angler fees.”

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