The Tidal Waters License Fee

As we head into the final few days of February one thing is certain – before long anglers will start to have to renew their fishing licenses for the new license year starting April 1. And, in the absence of notification otherwise, something else is almost as certain, that the price structure of the tidal waters license will remain the same as it has for the past twenty-two years.

By modern day standards this makes the license cost, the entry ticket to the Pacific region saltwater recreational fishery, a bargain – I mean what else has remained price unchanged since April 1, 1995? If I was clever I could go on-line and probably find an inflation adjustment calculator to determine exactly what the percentage loss of loonie strength has been since the last license fee change but my sense is that in 2017 dollars the relative cost of a license now is barely half of what it would have cost then.

Sounds like a great deal but in fact it isn’t. The programs that enable the regional marine recreational fishery are falling by the wayside, victim of the steady year on year erosion of the budget allotted to DFO by the Treasury Board in Ottawa. There’s no good guys and bad guys in this – the first big cuts came under the Chretien Liberal government, carried on and got worse through the Harper government years and, despite some additional monies promised for science, more broadly the penury has continued under the current Liberal government.

The exasperating thing about this situation is that a solution exists to bring some relief to the issues that confront better management of the recreational fishery, a solution moreover that has been proposed by participants who recognize the increasingly untenable state of affairs, and yet government hasn’t managed to move on the proposal. The Sport Fishing Advisory Board (https://www.pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/consultation/smon/sfab-ccps/index-eng.html), the three-tiered community-based advisory and consultation process between the fishery and DFO, has for several years been on record as supporting a significant increase in the tidal waters license fee subject to a couple of key provisions.

First, that all of the increased revenue flow back to the Pacific region to be used in ways that sustain better management of the recreational fishery and second, that the SFAB be consulted on what the new price fee structure should be because there are concerns that particularly with respect to short-term license fees the charge could prove to be a price barrier for those first time or occasional fishermen. Picture a family on vacation on the BC coast that learns that fishing is good and so decides to treat itself to a trip. Paying the service provider is one thing but if they find out that the cumulative cost of their one-day licenses is overly high they could well decide this is an experience they’ll have to pass up on, negating the efforts of various government agencies touting the benefits of the regional recreational fishery, to say nothing of all the private sector advertising marketing the same.

And if this sort of thing seems unlikely be mindful of the fact that the last round of license fee increases was a cash grab by the federal government of the day that wanted more dollars from the fishery, end of story. Mindful of the impact to the recreational fishery infrastructure then the SFAB is keen to ensure that this scenario is not repeated.

It is said that for electoral sensitivities the previous Conservative government was reluctant to up the license fee because, whatever the merits of doing so in a well-considered fashion, it didn’t want to be charged with what amounts to a tax increase on a recreational activity. As well, there are complications related to increasing the license fee with something called the User Fee Act, a private members bill that unexpectedly survived scrutiny and was passed by the previous parliament, legislation that even now after hearing it discussed for several years I don’t profess to have a good understanding of.

Further complications might arise even from those who most anglers would regard as an ally. In addition to the license fee itself, to retain salmon an angler has to purchase a salmon stamp, all the revenues from which now are transferred to the Pacific Salmon Foundation to help support its essential work sustaining the salmon resource. However the PSF is endeavoring to secure a price increase on the salmon stamp above the existing $6 and the SFAB is concerned for the reasons briefly outlined above that this might not be a good fit with a revised license price structure. In addition the SFAB wants to discuss with government the idea of additional stamps, for groundfish and shellfish for example, so whatever the merits of additional revenue to the PSF once again the issue of aggregate cost is something that has to be considered fully.

Even when the government decides to proceed and agreement is worked out on a new price fee structure such a development likely won’t occur quickly because it requires a regulation change, something that in the absence of ready cabinet support could take several years to implement. The truth is the creaky support structure DFO directs to recreational fishery management can’t hold out much longer unless new monies are secured, and fast.

Several DFO staff in Ottawa have taken on some awareness of the present situation and the need for prompt change. One hoped for development would see approval in the upcoming federal budget of the expenditure of a several million dollars per year for something called Recreational Vision Implementation. The Vision, as it’s referred to, is a series of guiding principles and objectives agreed to in 2010 between the federal and provincial government and the SFAB for a vibrant and sustainable recreational fishery in BC. Sounds good but regrettably in present circumstances is little more than fine sounding words. The implementation proposal would essentially be a small line item that amounts to a rounding error compared to the enormity of the federal budget, however these monies if approved would really enable recreational fishery management to get back to where it needs to be with the idea being that government would recoup the funds over time through a well considered license fee increase.

So fingers crossed that the implementation funds are approved and in the meantime consider all this when you next purchase a tidal waters fishing license, truly a good deal despite the management shortcomings of the fishery it enables you to participate in.