A bill that would restore state license fees for sport fishing guides and operators — which expired in 2018 — is slowly moving through the legislature.
A House amendment last year to charge nonresidents double the annual fee as Alaska residents raised questions and concerns, most recently during a Senate committee hearing on the proposed law.
Reinstating license fees would generate approximately $420,000 per year for fisheries data management work.
Meanwhile, a separate bill to reinstate a longstanding surcharge on all sport fishing licenses that expired a year ago is also awaiting its turn for legislative action. The bill would raise about $5.6 million a year for fisheries improvement efforts.
Proponents say reinstating the annual surcharge on a few hundred thousand sport fishing licenses could help cover salmon enhancement programs, such as at the public Crystal Lake hatchery in Petersburg, operated by the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, and at the private Douglas Island Pink and Chum Salmon Hatchery in Juneau.
In an attempt to bring back license fees for guides and operators, the governor introduced House Bill 79 last year, with a proposed fee of $200 per year for guides and $400 per year for operators, i.e. double the old rate.
The intention is for the Department of Fish and Game to use the money to operate its saltwater fishing log program, which collects catch and fishing effort data.
The logbook program has been running since 1998, but without a designated funding source.
The data “provides critical information that informs sustainable fisheries management decisions,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a letter introducing the bill. The state is required to collect the data to meet its obligations under the Canada-US Pacific Salmon Treaty and for the International Pacific Halibut Commission.
Without license fee revenue, the department used state general fund dollars to operate the data collection program, Fish and Wildlife Department Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang told the Committee. Senate Resources on January 26.
The Governor’s proposal only applied to saltwater sport fishing operations, but the House changed the licensing and fee provision to also cover freshwater guides and operators, though the department could decide whether freshwater fishing operations should retain and submit logbook data.
The ministry required logbooks from guides and freshwater operators from 2005 until the program expired under a sunset provision in 2018.
Expanding the scope of licensing fees is causing “heartburn” for guides and freshwater operators, Vincent-Lang told senators, adding that the department does not see “an immediate need” for requiring logbooks for freshwater fishing, whereas saltwater fishing effort data is “critical” for management decisions.
In addition to adding guides and freshwater operators to the license fee provisions, the House amended the Governor’s bill to halve the proposed annual fee for residents while leaving nonresidents at the highest prices. This would charge non-residents twice as much – $100 for resident guides and $200 for non-resident guides, with an annual fee of $200 for resident operators and $400 for non-residents.
The department reports that in 2019, before the pandemic, there were about the same number of resident guides as non-residents, about 1,200 each.
The bill passed the House by a margin of about 2 to 1 last May. He was suspended for the second year of the two-year legislative session and had his first hearing at the Senate Resources Committee last week. The committee has withheld the bill for further consideration “at a later date,” said committee chairman Josh Revak of Anchorage.
At the January 26 hearing, Senator Gary Stevens of Kodiak questioned the legality of charging nonresidents twice as much for the same license as residents. Vincent-Lang said the Law Department said the price difference “is defensible,” based on a previous lawsuit authorizing higher fees to give nonresidents access to the city’s resources. ‘State.
The Southeast Alaska Guides Organization spoke out last year against the higher fees for nonresidents, saying they are unjustified and legally questionable.
The four members of the Southeast Alaska House all voted for the bill last year. Representatives Dan Ortiz, of Ketchikan, and Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins, of Sitka, both said last week that they still support the metrics and fee structure. But opponents of the measure succeeded in stalling the bill’s progress, Kreiss-Tomkins said.
The Governor’s other sport fishing licensing bill (House Bill 80), passed the House with an overwhelming majority last year, passed the Senate Resources Committee in four days last May and is now awaiting a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee.
The measure would reinstate a surcharge that expired Jan. 1, 2021 on sport fishing licenses. The surcharge was $9 per year for residents and ranged for non-residents from $10 for a day license to $45 for an annual license. The money had been used to pay off bonds for two salmon hatchery projects in the state, including Crystal Lake Hatchery in Petersburg. When the debt was repaid in 2020, the surcharge disappeared.
Dunleavy proposed bringing the surcharge back to a reduced level, removing $2.50 from each of the stages of the expired fee schedule, to establish a “Sport Fishing Hatchery Facilities Account” that could fund future maintenance of the state-owned facilities.
The House amended the bill to allocate some of the money to “fisheries management, fisheries research, invasive species removal and eradication, and habitat restoration,” with the rest going to to “the enhancement of sport fish stocks and the continued maintenance of the Department’s sport fish hatchery facilities”.
However, bringing back a missing fee can be a political challenge, no matter how well-intentioned, Kreiss-Tomkins said, noting Alaskans’ aversion to fees.
In 2020, the state issued more than 300,000 sport fishing licenses, nearly 60% to residents. Because of the higher fees, the total surtax revenue from non-residents was about six times the fees paid by residents.