Most anglers won’t be thinking about the cost of their fishing license when they ply Pennsylvania’s streams and lakes on the opening day of the trout season, April 1. Instead, they’ll be envisioning sleek trout slamming their baits and lures. That temporary respite is a good thing because the price of a Pennsylvania fishing license, and trout permit, is likely to rise in 2024, for the second consecutive year.
In a specially convened meeting on March 1, the Fish and Boat Commission’s board of commissioners voted unanimously to advance proposed fee increases for its menu of licenses and permits for the 2024 license year, effective Dec. 1, 2023.
Their proposal portends a $2.50 increase for an adult resident license, plus the same increase for a trout permit or the popular combination trout/Lake Erie permit, which enables its holder to fish for steelhead and other trout in Lake Erie and its Pennsylvania tributary streams. The price of a senior lifetime license (age 65 minimum) would rise by $10, and a non-resident license by $4.
Fish and Boat commissioners must vote at a meeting later this year to grant the new fee schedule final approval. If they do, the combined cost of an adult resident license and trout permit would be $39.00, not counting minimal vendor fees. A 30-day public comment period will precede that vote.
The process unfolding now is new in the Fish and Boat Commission’s fiscal history. The agency had long teetered on a narrow balance of costs versus revenue.
Historically, the Commission limped along for spans of many years before approaching the State Legislature to request a fee increase. Legislators extended these revenue droughts for so long that when a fee hike was imperative to prevent the Commission’s collapse, which would have proved unpopular among fishing constituents, lawmakers approved big price-hikes, to make up for extended neglect.
Those jumps in price always resulted in a significant loss of anglers, deterred by the sudden increase, in the years following the hike.
But in 2020, perhaps surprisingly, legislators passed a law granting authority to the Fish and Boat Commission to set its own license fee schedule, within limits. The law’s logic was to allow Fish and Boat commissioners to impose modest increases as needed, avoiding the whopping fee hikes of the past. Smaller incremental raises, advocates argued, would prevent the drop-off in fishing participation seen after past fee adjustments.
But lawmakers did retain for themselves some veto power. The Fish and Boat Commission must submit its final proposal to the Game and Fisheries committees in both the state House and Senate. If committee members don’t deny the increase within 10 tens, it’s a done deal.
The Game Commission does not have the same fee-hike authority. It must approach the Legislature and request a hunting license price-hike be passed into law.
So far, the logic behind Fish and Boat’s fiscal autonomy is proving valid. When Fish and Boat first exercised its new authority with a $2.50 license increase for the current 2023 fishing season, it predicted a 4% drop in license sales. But Brian Barner, Fish and Boat’s deputy director for administration, indicates that now seems unlikely.
“Early indicators are license sales are up this year a little over five percent,” Barner said. “We’re off to a good start.”
Although the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has purview over a wide range of aquatic responsibilities, including pollution monitoring and enforcement, boating safety, and conservation of reptiles and amphibians, including endangered species, the largest cost to the Commission is its immensely popular trout-rearing and stocking program.
By the middle of May, the Commission will have stocked 700 stream sections and 126 lakes around the state with 3.2 million brown, brook, and rainbow trout, about 70,000 of which will be “trophy size.” That total does not include more than a million trout provided by the Commission to cooperative nurseries as “fingerlings” (under seven inches). Cooperative organizations raise those fingerlings to adult size for stocking in waters open to public fishing, so total trout stocked for Pennsylvania anglers exceeds 4 million.
In addition, Fish and Boat stocks hundreds of thousands of fingerling trout annually into rivers like the Youghiogheny, intended to grow after release to catchable size. Reportedly, however, and to the disappointment of local anglers and professional guides, the Youghiogheny received no fingerling trout in 2022.
The Fish and Boat Commission rears those millions of trout in its system of nine trout hatcheries. Most trout stocked in southwestern lakes and streams come from the Reynoldsdale Hatchery in Bedford County. Fish and Boat commissioners and personnel cite facility upgrades to trout hatcheries as a justification for the proposed higher fees.
Fish and Boat Commission executive director Tim Schaeffer indicated new revenues, estimated at $2.5 million, will be used for infrastructure improvements at fish hatcheries, boat launches, and to restore the safety of hazardous dams.
“The goal all along was to get away from large one-time increases that would have an impact on license sales and fishing participation,” said Schaeffer.
Ben Moyer is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America.
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