In A Few Weeks,Saltwater Anglers may wake up to some shocking news: Congress might require youto purchase a new license—and major sporting groups support the move.

Certainly thereis nothing new about Congress imposing additional fees or regulations. Thetruly stunning development here is that sportsmen’s organizations have finallyrealized that admitting and measuring their impact on marine fishes is not onlythe right thing to do—it’s the smart thing to do. And the best way to do thatis with saltwater fishing licenses.

This issue comesup because Congress is completing a much-needed task: reauthorizing theMagnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the law that setsrules for fishing in marine waters.

First passed in1976, the act was designed to protect stocks fished for by America’s commercialfleets from mounting foreign pressure. It did this by establishing an”exclusive economic zone” for U.S. fishermen within 200 miles of ourcoastlines. That this was as much a business decision as an environmentalconcern was evident in the history of the agency in charge: Before 1970 theNational Marine Fisheries Service had been called the Bureau of CommercialFisheries. Then, as now, it was part of the Department of Commerce. And to makesure the rules governing fishing were responsive to business interests, the actgave a lot of management power to a series of regional Fisheries ManagementCouncils composed of fishermen, scientists, and state agencies.

Profits First,Fish Second But even federal laws with good intentions have unforeseen consequences, andcoastal anglers soon discovered they had reasons to worry about the MagnusonAct.

The first wasbecause the act allowed the councils and the NMFS to favor the economicallydominant fishery when setting rules for a species or fishing area. Withpolitically powerful commercial fisheries dominating the councils, it becameclear that if a choice had to be made between cutting profits and protectingthe long-term health of a species, the fish would usually lose. Similarly, assport and commercial fishermen came into ever more frequent conflict overcoastal species, sports typically got the short end of regulations—if any werepassed. For example, little was done to prevent shrimp trawls from taking atoll on red snapper, despite overwhelming evidence of the harm that they werecausing.

As a list ofmarine species was fished to the brink of collapse in the 1980s, such as redsnapper and red drum, it became obvious that the system worked more to protectvested commercial interests than the fish it managed.

Ironically, thepermits, licenses, and mandatory catch reporting commercial fishermen hadcomplained about for years now backed up their claims of economic supremacy.Sport fishermen, on the other hand, had tenaciously resisted saltwater licensesand even catch reporting. They had fewer hassles, but they now had no way toprove their own importance.

Fortunately, thereauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act has given them an opportunity toreconsider—and they have.

A wide coalitionof sportfishing industry and conservation groups supports a provision of theact that would help establish a system of state saltwater fishing licenses,including the International Association of Fish and Game Agencies, and theCoastal Conservation Association—which once opposed the concept.

“The simplestway to prove our economic importance is to have proof of our numbers,” saysBob Hayes, executive counsel of the CCA. “Once we have those numbers wecan’t be ignored or dismissed.”

Once in place,those licenses will provide the evidence that, in many areas and for manyspecies, recreational fishing is now the dominant economic use and should havethe louder voice in influencing regulations and long-term management.

Another licensemay cost saltwater anglers a few extra dollars, and a little extra time. But itwill be resources well spent for fishermen—and for the fish.