VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — More than 56,000 anglers complied in 2011 with a new requirement that they register with the state to fish in salt water, though the number who have notified the state is far lower than federal estimates of how many people are actually fishing.
Another 80,000 people who have Virginia saltwater fishing licenses are automatically registered with the Fisherman Identification Program, bringing its rolls to about 136,000.
The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that 750,000 people go fishing in the state's salt waters each year, according to Virginia Marine Resources Commission spokesman John Bull. However, Bull said state officials have always been skeptical of that figure.
"That estimate has always been a wild pie-in-the-sky best guess that the feds put together," he said. "We have thought for many years it was an excessive number. That said, part of the benefits of this registration program would be to help answer the age-old question of exactly how many people do fish in Virginia waters."
Last year, federal officials started requiring nearly everyone 16 and older who fishes in salt water to register with a state or federal agency each year. It's an effort to create a phone book they can use to survey people and get a better idea of who is fishing, where they're fishing and what they're catching. Regulators want the information to determine the health of fish stocks and to provide the country's first comprehensive assessment of recreational saltwater fishing.
Those who don't have traditional state licenses are required to pay a $15 registration fee under the federal program, but Virginia worked out a deal to allow those who fish in the state and don't need a fishing license to avoid paying the fee this year if they registered online or by telephone.
"We think this is an excellent first start, but there are still plenty of people who have not received the word who have not registered as they should," Bull said.
Those who don't need a fishing license but who still need to register include people who fish on a friend's boat, even if that person has a license that allows everyone on the boat to fish. Others who don't need to buy a fishing license but now must register with the state include those older than 65 and those fishing from a commercial pier or private property. Failure to register with the state can result in a $500 fine. Exact figures on the number of anglers cited for failing to register weren't immediately available, but Bull said several hundred were cited after Virginia Marine Police started enforcing the requirement this summer after a six-month educational outreach period.
Often though, officers will still work with boaters and recreational fisherman to get them in compliance on the spot. Before Christmas, Virginia Marine Police patrolling near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel found several people fishing who had failed to register because they weren't aware of the requirement. Marine Police Officer Jeff Copperthite, who acknowledged being in a charitable mood, let a handful of fishermen who were visiting friends for the holidays use their cell phones and smart phones to register while they ensured everyone on board was in compliance with other safety regulations. Sometimes Copperthite handed out brochures explaining the Fisherman Identification Program to those who hadn't heard of it.
"The conservation and the compliance is what we do and we use the best means possible to take care of that. Sometimes it's to get them to do it right there, sometimes it's a summons," Copperthite said.
One person Copperthite registered while on board a buddy's fishing boat was Chris Allen of Durham, N.C.
Allen was fishing for rockfish on his friend's boat. That friend — Russ Turnage of Lanexa, Va., — had a license that allowed both he and Allen to fish, but Allen was still supposed to register with the state. Turnage didn't mention that to his friend before they put their lines in the water.
"It's so new people aren't used to it yet, including me," Turnage said.
Like others, Allen quickly complied with Copperthite's directions to get registered and avoid a fine.
"I'm an out-of-stater and I'd like to fish in your waters," Allen promptly said on his cell phone to a person manning the registration line as Copperthite looked on. The entire process took less than five minutes.
Bull said the Marine Resources Commission is aware that more needs to be done to spread the word about the registration requirement. He said another outreach campaign would likely start next spring when more people begin fishing again.
Virginia Fisherman Identification Program http://www.mrc.virginia.gov/FIP/
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis .