State developing proposal to hike fishing license fees

Washington’s freshwater, saltwater, shellfish and razor clam licenses would increase by $2 per year, and some hunting license prices reduced, under a proposal to be unveiled by the Department of Fish and Wildlife in January.

An annual freshwater fishing license currently costs $29.50.

The license proposal is projected to generate about $2.2 million in additional revenue from recreational fees and $800,000 from commercial fees.

Guy Norman, the agency’s regional director in Southwest Washington, said the department’s state general fund revenue has been reduced by about $50 million since 2008.

Federal dollars are dwindling and the costs of managing fish and wildlife are creeping upward, he added.

Gov. Jay Inslee has directed most state agencies to identify how they would absorb another cut of up to 15 percent from general taxpayer dollars in the 2015-17 budget cycle.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife operates with 1,700 employees on a two-year budget of $375 million. The agency operates 83 fish hatcheries, manages almost 1 million acres of wildlife habitat and hunting areas, and maintains 700 boat ramps and water access sites.

The department also manages hundreds of species, including many listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Norman said management of ESA-listed species often requires stringent and costly monitoring to assure fishing and hunting opportunities do not set back recovery of the species.

Here’s is a look at potential increases and decreases in license fees and commercial surcharges and excise tax increases:

• An annual combination fishing license would increase by $1.

• Annual freshwater, saltwater, shellfish and razor clams licenses, plus the three-day razor clam license, would increase by $2.

• Fees for all the licenses mentioned above would increase $5 annually for non-residents.

• A new surcharge would be applied to commercial businesses that fish, harvest, sell, buy or process salmon and steelhead. The salmon excise tax would be increased. Individuals assisting in the commercial harvest of fish and shellfish would be required to buy a new crew member license.

• The state Fish and Wildlife Commission would be given authority to reduce the price of several hunting licenses currently set at fixed amounts. State law would only specify maximum fees.

Norman said the agency sells about 550,000 hunting licenses annually, generating about $17 million.

Nationally, the number of hunters is declining slowly. In Washington, fewer hunters pursue ducks, geese and upland birds than in decades past.

“We think by selectively reducing certain fees we can increase the number of hunters, and thereby increase revenue,’’ Norman said.

• New master hunter and damage hunt licenses costing $20 are proposed. The new licenses would encourage participation in damage-related hunts without requiring hunters to forego their general hunting season opportunities for deer and elk.

• A new, yet-to-be-announced fee is proposed to recover the costs of operating the department’s private lands hunting reservation program. The department has a number of private properties in Eastern Washington that can be reserved online for an exclusive hunt during a set period of time.

Norman said general state tax dollars are down to just 16 percent of the agency’s budget. User fees are 39 percent, federal funding is 29 percent and local funds, such as mitigation money from utility companies, are 16 percent.

Cuts to the department’s operations likely would include reductions in salmon and steelhead hatchery production, he said. The state’s aging hatcheries already are struggling due to deferred maintenance, resulting in costly emergency repairs.

Action by the state Legislature will be required to increase fees, create new licenses and give the commission authority to reduce hunting license prices.

The Legislature convenes beginning Jan. 12.

Details of the fee proposals could change in the next few weeks as a result of additional discussions with constituents, he said.