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Boaters Should Pay Their Fair Share

But proposed registration increases need tweaking

Fishing and boating on Chesapeake Bay are among Maryland’s great attractions. But you’ve got to pay to play.
    The list of what needs doing is long and constant:

   Fishfinder      

    Yellow perch and pickerel are still the headliners for late February and going into March. The majority of neds are still small males, though short runs of larger males and gravid females are becoming a bit more frequent.
Crappie catching in freshwater is also starting to bloom, with rumors of good-sized fish showing up high on the Tuckahoe and in lakes and ponds.

   In Season      

Cottontail rabbit: thru Feb. 29
Canada goose, resident, late season: thru March 3
Light goose conservation order season: thru April 14

    Developing and maintaining public boating facilities … dredging and marking navigation channels … installing marine sewage pump-out stations … funding boating-related shoreline erosion-control projects … acquiring fire and rescue vessels … removing abandoned boats and debris from state waters … regulating the use of waterways by boaters … and supporting the operations of the Natural Resources Police on Maryland’s 64,000 square miles of Chesapeake Bay.
    Maintaining our waterways costs money that, nowadays, isn’t there. The Waterway Improvement Fund, created some 50 years ago by legislation imposing a five percent excise tax on all boat purchases, provides the lion’s share of Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ budget for jobs like that. Money also comes from boater registration fees. In past years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has managed much of the dredging.
    But the boat excise tax income accumulating in the Waterway Improvement Fund has plummeted from close to $30 million per year to about $15 million. Federal budget constrictions mean the Corps of Engineers now charges states for work they used to do free.
    What it all comes down to is that DNR’s Boating Services are more than $25 million short. If we want what we’re used to — and anglers, commercial fishermen, environmentalists and water communities all agree that we do — we’re going to have to find the money somewhere.
    A big part of that proposed somewhere is a whopping planned increase in boat-registration fees. Currently, non-powered boats (including canoes, kayaks and sailboats) are free, as are craft of 16 feet or under powered by an engine of no more than 71⁄2 horsepower. All other powered boats are $24 bi-annually.
    The proposed increase starts at $50 every two years for all powered boats under 16 feet. For boats 16 to 32 feet, the biannual fee rises to $125, and for boats 32 to 45 feet to $250. Boats 45 to 65 feet pay $500, and larger vessels $700. These fees would be reached in two phases, half the increase by 2014 and the full fee in 2016. Owners of small, non-motorized boats are asked to pay a $12 voluntary registration fee.
    Boat registration fees have not increased in decades. We are long overdue, and I am all for having those who benefit from a government service paying their fair share.

Tweaking Needed

    That said, I see some apparent inequities.
    Under the new plan a 10-foot dingy or a 15-foot two-person canoe, powered occasionally by the addition of an electric trolling motor, would be subject to a biannual registration fee of $50, the same fee as a 15-foot ski boat with a 150 horsepower motor or as a high-powered jet ski. I’m not sure this is fair, or what DNR intended.
    In that same sense, is it wise to lump into a single category all powered (and sail) boats 16 to 32 feet? This range covers the overwhelming majority of all recreational boats on the Bay. The increased financial burden is significant, more than five times the current registration fee. Yet it falls the same on small, simple vessels valued at a few hundred dollars as on those priced in the hundreds of thousands. That hardly seems an equitable way to distribute the cost of maintaining a complex marine infrastructure.
    Fees on commercial vessels, I suggest, also need rethinking. Commercial vessels ply the water daily and put greater demand on all services, including in many cases ice breaking and dredging to keep their marinas accessible. Yet they are included at the same rate as recreational boats that individually put far less demand on DNR’s resources.
    Finally, what’s the plan for windfall fee income if the economy ever rebounds? Will cash-hungry managers and politicos have access to it for their non-boat-related pet projects?
    The Department of Natural Resources deserves our support, financially and otherwise, in maintaining our waterways and helping Maryland citizens enjoy the richness of the Chesapeake. An increase in boating registration fees is long overdue and perhaps even necessary in the amount proposed. But the current plan definitely needs tweaking to make it fair for everyone.

   Angler’s Alert         

    Don’t miss the Tie Fest fly-tying exposition this Saturday, February 25, at Kent Island Yacht Club in Chester. It starts at 10am and is free.

   Still More Oyster Poaching         

    For the third time in as many weeks, Natural Resources Police have apprehended poachers. This time officers came by helicopter to surprise three commercial boats poaching oysters on the Tangier Sound Sanctuary. One of the five men apprehended, David T. Wheatley Sr., 47, from Wenona, had been arrested January 20 for the same offense. Officers seized Wheatley’s oyster dredge from his boat for forfeiture.