Federal pay to not play fish survey rankles Vineyard fishermen

Holly Mercier holds a big striped bass she caught from her shore while fishing with her brother Lucas Mercier. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

The federal government wants to put a price tag on the value of recreational fishing. And in an unusual study, an economist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is offering Massachusetts fishermen cash to not fish.

The cash offers, made in the form of checks in amounts ranging from $15 to $500 and mailed to fishermen selected at random from holders of the Massachusetts Recreational Saltwater Fishing Permit, has caused a stir in the angling community. Reactions have included suspicion of the study’s goals to criticism of the government for using tax dollars.

Quantech, a Virginia-based research firm, is conducting the surveys. Letters went out last month, one of four mailings that will end in April, to selected permit holders. NOAA will spend about $145,000 on the study, of which $75,000 will be used to offer cash payments to 500 of the 1,900 permit holders selected for the survey.

The remainder of the permit holders will be asked for either their willingness to sell their 2012 permit for a particular price or their willingness to have paid a different amount for their 2012 permit.

The Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) provided little advance publicity about the study. As a result, when the first wave of survey letters was mailed out they immediately generated questions and confusion. Some fishermen assumed the cash offer was a scam. Others suspected the government was laying the groundwork to raise the $10 permit fee.

In response, DMF sent an email advisory to fishermen “to attest to the legitimacy of this angler permit survey, including the cash offers that some individuals will receive, and to assure its constituents that in no way will the information from the survey be used to modify fees for recreational saltwater fishing permits.”

DMF said the study would provide important information about the socio-economic value of saltwater fishing in Massachusetts, and help to validate frequently used economic evaluation methods “by applying an innovative direct approach in which some saltwater permit holders are presented with a cash offer in exchange for giving up their permit and thus the right to fish in marine waters for the remainder of 2012.”

DMF also posted a series of frequently asked questions on its agency website to reassure the fishing public. “We believe that studies that attempt to estimate the value of saltwater recreational fishing should also include an estimate of what saltwater fishing is worth to the people that actually go fishing,” DMF wrote. “The information collected from this study will allow us to estimate the value anglers like you place on being able to go recreational saltwater fishing.”

In December 2008, NOAA announced plans for a national registry of saltwater anglers. NOAA said that better national surveys of the more than 15 million saltwater anglers would provide important economic and fisheries data.

Beginning in 2011, a Massachusetts law went into effect that requires, with some exceptions, that anyone who wets a line hold a state saltwater fishing permit.

The law created a separate account for all license fees, known as the “Marine Recreational Fisheries Development Fund.” The fund must be used to support science and conservation programs designed to improve recreational saltwater fishing and public access to recreational saltwater fishing. DMF said permit fees are not funding the survey

Value added

NOAA has regularly provided estimates of the value of recreational fishing to the economy. A study published in 2009 estimated the marine recreational fishing trips and their related expenditures for New England at $1.8 billion, and for the Mid-Atlantic at $3.5 billion.

In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Woods Hole based NOAA economist Scott Steinback, the man behind the checks, said he had been thinking about the idea for this type of survey for a long time and asked DMF director Paul Diodati to go along with it. “He was a little reluctant but he agreed and that is why we are doing it in Massachusetts,” Mr. Steinback said.

Asked about the reaction of fishermen to the survey, Mr. Steinback said, “I’m a fisherman myself. I completely understand. It’s a difficult concept to grasp.”

Mr. Steinback said he has participated in many past economic studies and it is obvious that fishermen enjoy fishing or they would find some other less expensive recreational activity. “I am trying to put a value on what that satisfaction is,” he said. “Sort of their return on investment, and that is in addition to what anglers are spending, so that’s the total economic value that anglers place on being able to go fishing, that’s what I’m trying to get at.”

Told that several well-respected Island fishermen had described the study as idiotic, Mr. Steinback wasn’t surprised. “I know,” he said. “I’ve seen the quotes.”

Mr. Steinback said he thought that on the whole fishermen who cash the checks would comply and not fish. To the criticism that the money could have been better spent, Mr. Steinback said, “I would have liked to have spent even more, to be honest. I am a fisherman and I probably would not give up my permit for $500.”

Mr. Steinback emphasized that there is no truth to the suspicion that the survey would be used to raise fees or that NOAA is trying to scale back recreational fishing.

Take this check

Island residents are intimately familiar with the value of recreational fishing. The annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby began in 1946 as a way to use great fishing to extend the fall shoulder season.

Now entering it 67th year, the venerable contest regularly attracts almost 3,000 participants. Charter boats crowd Island harbors and fishermen are a familiar sight along most any beach.

The notion of paying people not to fish did not sit well with Cooper Gilkes, who makes his living selling tackle at his well-known Edgartown tackle shop. “Whoever came up with that idea?” he said. “I think it’s stupid, idiotic.”

Ed Jerome, former Edgartown School principal and long-time Derby president, was a member of the DMF advisory committee formed to help implement the saltwater fishing permit and determine how the money would be used. He said there is no question that recreational fishing generates significant economic activity.

“The fact that they would give the money away is absurd,” Mr. Jerome said. “I really think it’s a silly exercise. There are probably other ways they could come up with an economic value without giving money away.”

Chris Scott, a member of the Derby board of directors and executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, described the study as asinine and said he made his feelings known to DMF.

“What a foolish waste of taxpayer dollars that would be better spent on a grant to the state, funding another environmental officer for our area, or any number of other programs such as creating more public access for fishing or otherwise supporting fishing stocks,” Mr. Scott said in an email to The Times.

“Who seriously thinks that the guys who take the windfall aren’t going to fish anyway?” Mr. Scott asked.

Brice Contessa, an Edgartown-based charter captain, questioned the method of determining value but said he would defer to the economist as it pertains to methodology. He expressed confidence in the value of recreational fishing permits and the data the registry would provide.

“I think as the saltwater registry begins to gain a foothold in this state and others that the data will indicate just how much revenue recreational fishing is bringing to the economy,” Mr. Contessa said. “When viewed in this context sport fishing might be celebrated rather than disparaged. They’ve known this in Florida for decades and their fisheries policies have been structured accordingly.”

Holly Mercier, a landscaper, received a check for $250. She ripped it up. “I don’t think any amount of money will stop me from fishing,” Ms. Mercier told The Times. “Fishing is my therapy.”