Anglers Help Monitor R.I.’s Marine Ecosystems

By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff

For seven dollars, Rhode Island residents can obtain a saltwater recreational fishing license and gain access to waters in Rhode Island, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine. In an era of increasing costs, this is a bargain, and tens of thousands are taking advantage.

According to Kevin Smith of the state Department of Environmental Management’s Fish & Wildlife, 42,306 licenses were issued in 2012, resulting in $273,147 in revenue. So where, one might ask, does all that money go?

Revenue from recreational saltwater fishing license sales is used strictly for programs beneficial to saltwater recreational fishing interests. Rhode Island law states that license fees must be used for three purposes: administering the license program, managing recreational fisheries and enhancing recreational fishing opportunities.

According to a 2012 DEM report, $2 from every online sale and $3 from every vendor sale goes toward administering the license program. The remainder of the money is deposited in a restricted account managed by DEM that is set aside for managing fisheries and improving fishing opportunities in the Ocean State. According to Smith, $187,680 was deposited last year.

Each dollar added to this account is eligible to leverage an additional $3 in federal funds, through the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Wildlife & Sport Fish Restoration Program, which funds marine recreational fishing programs. That means Rhode Island saltwater fishing license sales from 2012 could hypothetically fund $750,720 worth of projects related to managing fisheries or improving fishing opportunities; the actual amount will be less because some projects, such as advertising the license program, are not eligible for the federal match.

To effectively manage fisheries, DEM requires reliable data about the type and volume of fish being caught, Smith said. A total of $69,375 is budgeted for fiscal 2014, before the federal match, for data collection, improving the efficiency of data collection and paying staff to manage the data, according to Smith.

Two contracting companies are responsible for data collection. One conducts phone interviews; the other conducts in-person interviews with fishermen at various locations.

Until recently, the phone interview process was incredibly inefficient. According to a DEM report, of 73,024 random calls made to numbers in Rhode Island’s phone book in 2010, only 346 eligible fishing households were reached — less than half of 1 percent. To increase the rate of successful interviews, DEM, in 2011, partnered with the National Marine Fisheries Service to compile a national registry of people who obtain saltwater fishing licenses. The registry enables interviewers in Rhode Island to more readily survey known saltwater anglers.

The in-person interview process also is being revised, according to Smith. In the past, data collectors were paid by the interview. As a result, the most populated fishing locations were targeted by interviewers, while less populated fishing areas were ignored, resulting in biased data. This year, interviewers are being paid by shift, regardless of the number of interviews conducted. By eliminating the incentive for interviewers to visit only the busiest fishing locations, a more complete set of data should be generated, Smith said.

Obtaining accurate data ensures that DEM’s recreational fishing regulations are effective, fair and based on sound science, Smith said. Accurate information also provides a complete scope of recreational saltwater fishing in Rhode Island, and demonstrate anglers' economic, conservation and marine stewardship contributions.

License revenue also provides money to improve access to fishing areas. In fiscal 2014, DEM has budgeted $118,700 — $474,800 after the federal match — to improve and maintain boat ramps and access points around the state, including a major upgrade to the popular Galilee boat ramp, Smith said.

DEM, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, also is assessing the effectiveness of artificial reefs in Rhode Island waters — $9,350 has been budgeted for the project. According to Smith, artificial reefs are effective in places with sandy shorelines, but this project will determine if they can enhance Rhode Island’s craggy offshore environment. The project also will determine if artificial reefs increase fish stocks or instead result in existing fish relocating to the reef. The project isn’t eligible for a federal match.

Another $37,400 of license revenue, before the federal match, is budgeted for fiscal 2014 fish stock assessments in Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island’s coastal waters. According to Smith, the Narragansett Bay Juvenile Finfish Survey monitors 18 stations throughout Narragansett Bay. Stations are sampled monthly from June to October with a 200-foot seine net deployed from a boat. The net is hauled to shore, and finfish are identified and quantified for length and number. Invertebrates are also identified and estimated for abundance.

Smith said Rhode Island’s southern salt ponds undergo similar fish-stock surveys with smaller nets. Fish that can’t be surveyed using seine nets, such as black sea bass and tautogs, which live in structured or rocky areas, are surveyed using fish pots, he said.

The R.V. Chaffee, DEM’s research vessel, also conducts monthly and seasonal trawl surveys to measure fish stocks.

Fish-stock assessments help DEM understand exactly what lives in Rhode Island’s waters. Like data collected during interviews about what fishermen catch, fish-stock assessments allow state officials to make educated decisions when creating regulations, Smith said.

DEM has budgeted $16,428 for fiscal 2014 to raise awareness of the license program through advertisements and by creating the Recreational Salt Water Fishing Guide, which will contain information pertinent to fishermen — 40,000 copies will be distributed free of charge to tackle shops, town halls and other locations fishermen can easily access. Some of this money will be eligible for the federal match.

The saltwater recreational fishing license program has enhanced DEM’s ability to meet the needs of marine anglers, Smith said. Since it was implemented in 2010, the number of permits sold has increased annually. Smith said he expects that trend to continue for the next few years as awareness of the license program and compliance increases.