As the boating season kicks into high gear Memorial Day weekend, boaters and anglers in the state face some rough financial going.
High gas prices, less discretionary income and the prospect of rising fees as the Department of Natural Resources looks for ways to cover a multimillion-dollar deficit next year have boaters and anglers feeling the pinch, said Carol Martin, office manager at Atlantic Marina Resort in Pasadena.
“The whole marina industry is down,” Martin said from her office at the facility on the Patapsco River, where scores of boats are kept on racks out of the water when not in use.
Usually those boats are dry-docked to cut down on maintenance costs and damage from barnacles. Lately, they stay there because boatowners’ budgets are tight, she said.
Inactive storage is “higher than ever” — up by a third, Martin said.
“If they can find money in the budget [to go out in their boats] they will, but they don’t want to get rid of their boat,” Martin said.
More are using picnic and pool facilities at the marina but not venturing out in their vessels, she said.
During the 2012 regular General Assembly session, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources asked the legislature to approve an increase in boat registration fees for the first time in decades. The request called for a hike in the flat fee of $24 every two years, regardless of the boat's size, to more than double the amount for small boats and up to $700 for the largest category.
Although DNR later asked for a smaller fee increase, the measure died without a vote in the House Environmental Matters Committee.
Meanwhile, a 5 percent tax on boat sales that pays for waterway improvements is bringing the state about 50 percent less revenue than it did three years ago, said Bob Gaudette, DNR's boating services director.
A major factor is the decline in the sale of boats in the 34- to 40-foot range, Gaudette said. Many were bought with home equity loans, which declined with plummeting house prices, he said.
To cope with the revenue decrease, the state has reduced the number of buoys it sets and is delaying dredging some less-frequently used channels. The backlog was made worse, Gaudette said, because Maryland had to pick up the expense of dredging about 60 channels, in addition to the 200 it regularly maintains, when the Army Corps of Engineers gave up the task after losing federal funds.
DNR hopes that during the summer the agency can find alternative ways to boost funding that will win political support. Currently, boating services bring in $15 million, but about $41 is needed, Gaudette said.
Some anglers were disappointed that boat fees were not raised a bit, said Roger Trageser of Baltimore, president of the Maryland Bass Federation Nation, which has about 600 members.
Those who were pleased that boat registration fees were not raised may complain later as channels fill in, he said. "Woe on them" when they can't get their boats to a favorite spot, he said.
And DNR has told lawmakers that its budget allows for only about nine Natural Resources police officers per shift statewide, and that the number is inadequate.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said the force is not policing as it should and that the few officers on duty are traveling from place to place in trucks instead of patrolling waterways.
"They need a presence out there," said Simns, who added that problems with boats speeding and the serious poaching of striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay "wouldn't have happened if they'd been out there."
Although DNR estimates that commercial fishing fees cover only 20 percent of the agency's cost for managing commercial fisheries, Simns said he hopes to hold down increases in commercial fishing licenses and fees by finding ways for DNR to spend less.
The legislature also deferred raising commercial fishing licenses, which have not changed since 1994, to the chagrin of some sport fishermen who, according to DNR, pay 93 percent of the agency costs for their recreation.
Sport and commercial fishery advisory committees will work with DNR during the summer to recommend how to allocate revenue from commercial and recreational fisheries after the agency analyzes the cost of managing each.
"We're going to give them a list [of fee increases and service cuts] to consider," said Gina Hunt, DNR’s deputy fisheries management director.
"It's pretty much on stakeholders to make recommendations," Hunt said.
One place to start could be to charge the many out-of-state anglers who fish in Maryland tidal waters a higher fee, said Trageser, who sits on one of the committees that advises DNR, as does Simns.
A report to the governor and legislature that will include DNR’s analysis of fisheries costs and the groups’ recommendations is due Oct. 1.