Saturday, April 14, 2012

PA Fishing License Sales Up Over 20% As Trout Season Opens

By John Hayes / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette    

Anglers along Pennsylvania's creeks and shorelines might find themselves a little more elbow-to-elbow than usual during today's statewide opening of trout season.
The state Fish and Boat Commission has sold about 20 percent more fishing licenses than at this time last year, a potential sales bonanza that could put an additional 60,000 anglers on Pennsylvania waters. It's not clear, however, if the extra licenses mean extra anglers or anxious anglers who got out early.

If the numbers hold and Pennsylvanians really are turning to low-cost outdoor recreation in tough economic times, it would mark a reversal in a 20-year trend away from outdoors participation, and a significant boon to the state.

The spike in sales, however, could be a mere statistical anomaly -- mild weather luring anglers to buy licenses early to fish at special-regulation waters where trout fishing was legal before today. If that's the case, a continuing downward spiral in fishing and other outdoor activities could foreshadow an increasingly harsh economic climate for outdoors industries and negative health and social impacts among kids and young adults, described by one best-selling author as "nature deficit disorder."

Last week, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission painted an optimistic view of license sale statistics.

"With this spring's record warm weather and the significant jump in license sales, [Fish and Boat] expects the opening day to be very busy," the agency said in a written statement. "The 20 percent jump in license sales amounts to about 53,000 more anglers who have bought a license compared to this same time last year."

A few days later, on April 9, executive director John Arway said a reversal in the trend was not conclusive, but the numbers had continued rising.
"We're up about 60,000 license sales compared to last year, up about 22 percent," said Mr. Arway, who grew up in North Huntingdon and Cranberry.

Last year, Pennsylvania sold a little more than 800,000 fishing licenses, which cost $22.70 for a resident 16 or older. That's down from more than 1 million sold each year from 1977 through 1995.
A 22 percent increase in license sales would add about $3.5 million to an agency mostly funded by the anglers who use its services.

The Fish and Boat Commission spent about $52 million of its $60 million annual budget in 2011. Most of its spending is on fisheries management, and most of its revenue is from license and permit fees. Additional funding comes from a federal excise tax on fishing-related equipment and motor fuel sales, and timber and mineral rights leases on agency-owned properties. No money for wildlife management comes from the state's general fund.
This could be a good year for Fish and Boat's bottom line. Gov. Tom Corbett recently signed a bill that provides $1 million for shale-related expenses to each of the state's wildlife agencies -- Fish and Boat and the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Mr. Arway said his agency reviews some 5,000 well permit requests per year.
"We couldn't keep up with the workload the [shale] industry was placing on us," he said. "When there's a pipe crossing a stream -- any kind of stream or wetland encroachment -- the industry has to work with us for the permit review before the Department of Environmental Protection issues a work order. We had to put other things aside, and I was spending angler and boater dollars to keep up with that."

The new shale-related funding law includes additional provisions that may help Fish and Boat pay for upgrades to 16 agency-managed dams -- seven in Western Pennsylvania -- that were declared "high hazard" and closed by DEP.

At this week's quarterly business meeting, the Fish and Boat Commission discussed dam-repair initiatives and hiring of staff to manage the shale-related workload.
"I'm going to add several people for those duties," Mr. Arway said. "The money doesn't come until September, and I'm not sure when we can spend it."

Additional revenue from license sales also would be used to improve the agency's oversight of nongame aquatic animals and reptiles, Mr. Arway said.
Fishing license sales have fluctuated up and down about 4 percent in each of the past several years. A 20 percent shift is seen as unusual and substantial.

If sales are up, Allegheny County anglers will have had a lot to do with it. Allegheny routinely leads the state in fishing license sales, dwarfing the numbers sold in other counties. Fish and Boat statistics show that in 2011, Allegheny County anglers bought 50,312 resident fishing licenses, while 26,757 were sold in No. 2 ranked York County. In all, more than 90,000 fishing licenses and permits of all types were bought in Allegheny County last year.

The most recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, released in 2006, found that Pennsylvania anglers spent nearly $1.8 billion in retail sales a year and logged nearly 18 million fishing days, not including those of children who aren't required to have a fishing license.

Nationwide, the American Sportfishing Association acknowledged a downward trend in fishing-related spending. Yet the trade group reports more than 1 million jobs supported by anglers, and $45 billion annually in retail sales by some 40 million anglers -- the association notes that's 33 times the average attendance per game at all Major League Baseball parks combined.

Still, that 20 percent increase in Pennsylvania license sales sounds "fishy" to Sylvia Cabrera of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Usually we see ups and downs. It could be the weather, it could be the economy, but that sounds like a lot," she said. "We should have the first preliminary report in July.
She did acknowledge, however, that "Pennsylvania is one of our states with the highest participation of hunting and fishing."

Mr. Arway said other factors, including high gas prices, could be keeping people closer to home to go fishing and boating. It may be too soon to tell if the spike in fishing license sales is an early sign that Pennsylvanians are getting back to nature, or a temporary redistribution in sales.

"If that's the case, it'll even out as time goes on," he said. "The peak [license] sales period is [the] week before the opening day of trout season. The week after next we'll have a pretty good feel if it's a true increase."

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