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Cost of PA fishing license could increase for the first time in 17 years

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is proposing to increase the cost of fishing licenses for the first time in 17 years.

If approved, the new cost of a resident annual fishing license would rise from $21 to $23.50, nonresident from $51 to $55. The cost of a trout stamp would rise from $8 to $10.50. And the cost of a senior resident lifetime license would rise from $50 to $75, which is the biggest hike proposed.

The commission, which hopes to approve the increases for the start of the 2023 season, estimates the fee hikes would raise an additional $2.65 million annually for the agency.

"These modest fee adjustments would ensure that important infrastructure, services, and programs for anglers and boaters can continue and improve into the future while keeping prices reasonable," said Richard Kauffman, president of the Fish and Boat Commission’s board of commissioners.

"While the price of a fishing license has remained the same for the past 17 years, operational expenses have continued to go up and it is time to bring our fees in line with our business needs."

The Fish and Boat Commission has only increased fishing license fees twice in the past 26 years – in 1996 and in 2005.

The proposed $23.50 cost of the resident annual fishing license, which must be held by every angler age 16 and older, is only $7.25 more than anglers paid back in 1996.

Unlike the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the Fish and Boat Commission was given the authority by the state Legislature in 2020 to increase its own fees. The Game Commission’s fees are still set by the Legislature.

Last year was the first year the Fish and Boat Commission could have raised its own fees. But agency Executive Director Tim Schaeffer said commission staff didn’t recommend a hike then because so many new anglers bought licenses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We saw a dramatic increase in revenue due to an increase in participation during the pandemic,” he said.

The Fish and Boat Commission sells a variety of fishing licenses ranging from the resident and nonresident annual permits to one- and two-day tourist licenses.

The agency also offers multi-year licenses good for three years or five years, plus the senior lifetime licenses, which can be bought by anglers age 65 and older.

In 2019, the agency sold 759,098 annual licenses and 17,989 multi-year licenses.

In 2020, when the pandemic was in full swing, the agency sold 911,575 annual licenses and 22,684 multi-year licenses.

Last year, the combined number cooled a bit to 841,435 annual licenses and 24,538 multi-year licenses.

And so beginning in 2023, Schaeffer said the agency believes it would need a fee increase to enable it to meet the increased cost of doing business.

Gas prices are at record high levels, and inflation is at a 40-year high at 8.6 percent.

According to Brian Barner, deputy executive director for the Fish and Boat Commission, the agency expects to take in about $38 million in revenue in 2023 without the fee increases.

Operational expenditures, he said, are expected to be about $43 million, plus another $8.75 million in planned infrastructure improvements.

The difference between revenues and expenses would be covered with funds from the agency’s $23 million reserve.

That fund is also used by the agency to pay for infrastructure upgrades, such as fixes to hatcheries, dams and agency buildings.

Currently, the Fish and Boat Commission has $150 million in infrastructure needs – including $75 million just for hatchery improvements and repairs.

The more the agency eats into its reserve fund to cover operational expenses, the less it has for the infrastructure upgrades.

Even with the fee hike proposed for 2023, Barner said the agency could need another increase in two or three years, depending on what happens with revenues and expenditures.

What the agency’s fiscal projections do not account for are other potential streams of funds that have not yet materialized, such as the proposed, federal Recovering America’s Wildlife Act.

The bill seeks to “equip fish and wildlife managers with the tools necessary to proactively address the most critical fish and wildlife conservation needs that we face today,” according to a White House press release. It is currently in the deliberation process.

Schaeffer said that bill could provide “historic” additional funding to the Fish and Boat Commission.

“We continue to strategically and opportunistically look for other outside sources to support our work,” he said.

“We are going to keep our foot on the pedal with all those things.”

Kauffman said he and his fellow commissioners are aware that any increase in license fees is likely to lead to a loss of license sales.

It is their job, he said, to weigh that against the need of the agency for funding.

“Our goal is to fund our agency, but we want to keep as many customers as possible,” he said.

“It’s not about the money. It’s about having as many opportunities as possible for people to fish.”

In accordance with the law giving the Fish and Boat Commission authority over its license fees, the fee-hike proposal for 2023 must be presented to the public at an open hearing.

The board would have to vote to grant preliminary approval to the measure, allow time for public comment, then meet again at a later date to take a final vote.

If the increases are approved, the agency then would have to present the package to state House and Senate Game and Fisheries Committees for their review.

A date for the public hearing on the fee hikes has not yet been scheduled.