New federal saltwater license on its way?

A proposed federal saltwater fishing license would include recreational fishermen who fish from piers and the shore.

Buy a federal license — that's what fisheries managers want from everyone who dips a rod for fun in Lowcountry tidal waters or offshore.

Don't worry, the state says, it has you covered.

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration has proposed a saltwater angler registration for recreational fishermen that would help collect better counts of the fish caught in order to set limits for those catches. The registry would give managers a pool of phone numbers to make surveys that are now done with random calls from coastal area phone books.

Because the catch includes species like shad or striped bass that travel back and forth inshore to offshore, inshore fishermen would be required to get the license too. NOAA proposes the registration start in 2009 without charge; but in 2011, the license would cost from $15-$25 — on top of state licenses that now run $10-$35 in South Carolina. Public comments on the proposal will be taken until Aug. 11.

It's not an idea that's going to win a lot of friends.

The move is being made in part in response to complaints by commercial fishermen, who say their catches are unfairly restricted because they are watched and counted more closely, even though there are far more sports boats out there. In South Carolina alone, about 1,000 licensed commercial fishermen compete with more than 100,000 licensed sports anglers.

Lowcountry commercial and recreational fishers already pay taxes, face fuel costs that are keeping boats tied to the pier, and feud about how much each other catches in an ocean stock that most anglers agree is depleting.

"And they really think (fishermen) are going to tell them the truth?" said Carl Griffin, of Mount Pleasant, who fishes both commercially and recreationally. Both types of fishermen have long felt whatever catch numbers they report are used against them, he said. "If you give the government another dime more than they've got, they'll find a way to (dribble) it away."

South Carolina already requires saltwater licenses, except for fishing from the shore, and collects catch information. That might be good enough to exempt anglers here from the federal license, if state officials can provide NOAA with good enough catch numbers. NOAA managers say they would rather have states manage the program.

S.C. Natural Resources is working on a low cost shore-based angler's license for the anglers who aren't licensed now that would keep them from having to pay the full cost of a saltwater license.

"The only way we can get (the information NOAA wants) is to have everybody who goes out on the water have some kind of license," said Natural Resources board member Caroline Rhodes, of The Charleston Angler. "We think we have what NOAA is looking for."

Coastal Conservation Association, a lobby for recreational anglers, supports the license, said Mike Able, owner of Haddrell's Point Tackle and Supply in Mount Pleasant and a CCA member. Accurate catch information is needed to set reasonable limits.

"You can't plan a dinner unless you know how many people are coming," he said. "Are some people going to fuss? I'm sure they are. We're all getting hammered right now from fuel costs and everything else." But buying licenses to fish is so ingrained in anglers that the shop regularly has to tell customers they don't need a license now if they fish from shore.

"It doesn't appear to be too big an issue," he said. It will be up to Natural Resources to come up with a license that "everybody who wants to go fishing from a dock, or out on Shem Creek, can afford."