Merwin: Have You Gotten Your Saltwater License?

Like it or not, a federal saltwater fishing-license requirement became effective on January 1. It applies to most coastal anglers in those states that do not otherwise require saltwater licensing, such as New Jersey and Rhode Island. And it is hugely contentious.

Saltwater angling for fish such as striped bass has been essentially free for generations of anglers in the Northeast, albeit subject to growing size and bag limits for various species. That's been the case for so long that many surfcasters, for example, take their otherwise unencumbered fishing as an absolute individual right, as opposed to the licensed privilege granted freshwater anglers by their respective states.

Not any more. Over the weekend, I went online and became a federally "registered" saltwater angler. For 2010, the permit is free. After that, the feds will be charging for it. This has led some states such as Connecticut and New York to newly enact their own marine fishing license programs. If I had bought--as I still might--a New York marine license, for example, I would not need to register federally. And holding the new federal permit does not exempt me from any state licensing requirement.

Other states--New Jersey and Rhode Island again--are still in a muddle with no state-enacted marine licenses yet. But there probably will be. Otherwise, and without a state-enacted license program, license monies starting in 2011 will go to the feds instead of the states. I happen to think that saltwater-fishing licenses are a good idea and way overdue as long as the money derived goes back into the resource for management and enforcement. There are thousands of Northeastern anglers screaming bloody murder over this, however, who still can't accept that fishing is a somewhat-limited privilege and not an inalienable right.