Why all Victorian recreational fishers should be licensed
More than 50% of Victorian adult recreational fishers are unlicensed, thanks to a generous suite of exemptions. These privileges date back to a time when governments met the full cost of the State’s recreational fisheries program and an inland fishing licence funded some extra benefits.
Licence exemptions are now responsible for an unfair cost burden on licence-holders and for lost income for the recreational fisheries program. This situation can only worsen unless exemptions are replaced with concessional licences.
Today, Victoria’s Recreational Fishing Licence (RFL) scheme bears most of the ongoing operational costs of the recreational fisheries program. Over the years, the investment of up to $8.6 M of RFL funds has provided outstanding fishing opportunities for Victorian and visiting fishers.
However, while Government figures suggest that the number of fishers has almost doubled since 1999, the numbers of licences sold each year peaked in 2014/15 and have since declined, trending down towards the level of 1999. Licence revenue in 2017/18 was down by 8% on the previous year, despite fee increases.
Behind this, as the fishing population ages, is the large and increasing proportion of adult fishers who are exempt from the licence. Exemptions currently apply to fishers aged under 18 years and to adults over 70 years; holders of Victorian Seniors Cards and certain Commonwealth and DVA cards; and members of traditional owners groups under agreed arrangements.
REMOVING EXEMPTIONS IS VITAL – NOW
Recreational fishing licence exemptions existed in Victoria long before the start of the RFL in 1999. In terms of the viability and fairness of the recreational fisheries program, the exemptions weren’t important back then as Victorian governments bore the full costs of the ongoing program. All that’s changed now, so it’s timely to look at the origins of current exemptions.
For decades before the RFL was introduced, Victoria had an Amateur Fishing Licence which applied to recreational fishing in inland waters and to using bait nets and taking rock lobsters. Exemptions to that licence extended to fishers aged under 16 years, holders of various Commonwealth pension cards and Master Fishermans Licences, and participants in approved angling instruction courses. The licence revenue provided some extra benefits for recreational fishers.
When launching the RFL in 1999, having committed to maintaining government funding for the ongoing program, the Kennett Government increased the age for licence-free fishing to 18 years. They also added exemptions for fishers of 70 years or older and the 60+ year old holders of Victorian Seniors Cards (and removed Master Fisherman’s Licence exemptions). Over the years, the combined set of privileges have cost the RFL program millions of dollars. On top of this, from 2004, governments began cutting their program funding and cost-shifting their obligations to the RFL.
The decision to retain and broaden the pre-1999 exemptions gave no thought to the likely consequences. There was no assessment of the effect that the ageing of the population was having on the growing number of active over-60 year old fishers or of the effects that would have on the fairness and revenue aspects of the licence scheme.
Figure 1 compares the numbers of RFLs sold annually, from 2000 to 2018, extended to 2020 based on the current sales trend; and the estimated numbers of adult fishers based on the 2000-01 national survey, Ernst & Young surveys (2008/09 & 2013/14) and the Government’s target of one million by 2020. This illustrates the large cost burden already imposed on RFL-holders and how this will continue to grow unless the Government brings all adult fishers into the licensing scheme. On current trends, by 2030, every RFL-holder will be subsidising four unlicensed adult fishers.
So, what are some of the arguments put forward to oppose the introduction of concessional licences for currently-exempt fishers?
- THE RFL IS NOT A ‘SUPER’ SCHEME
Many ‘exempt’ anglers will claim ‘After years, of paying for fishing licences, I should be able to fish for free‘ or simply “I’ve paid my dues“. What’s wrong with those arguments is that paying for a licence over the years is not like paying into a superannuation scheme where you reap the benefits of free fishing later in life.
The licence you paid for in a given year contributed to the costs of maintaining the fisheries at the time. You either took advantage of the benefits or you didn’t, but they weren’t ‘banked’ for you to use later on. As time has gone on, the complexity and ongoing costs of maintaining fish stocks and expanding quality fishing opportunities have risen. Today, these costs fall on current RFL holders.
- LICENCE AFFORDABILITY
There will be claims such as “They’re old – they can’t afford it” and “What about the pensioners?” Certainly, affordability is an important issue when it comes to considering licences for adults currently exempt from the RFL. But, similar pleas can be put for many of those who buy licences despite the fact that they struggle financially. That’s why the issue of ‘ability to pay’ needs to be looked at beyond:
- those over 70 years of age;
- holders of Victorian Seniors Cards, Commonwealth Pensioner Concession Cards and specified DVA cards.
‘Ability to pay’ is an important part of the concessions applied to recreational fishing licences everywhere, inter-state and overseas. An important element of concessional licences is that they must all make a real contribution towards the fishing program costs. Only young children qualify for free licences, which must be renewed each year.
For example, for fishing in Tasmanian inland waters, decreasing annual fee levels are set from Adults (full cost, 100%) to Seniors (79%), Pensioners (55%) and 14-17 year old Juniors (16%). Similarly, for several of Tasmania’s licensed saltwater fisheries, a “Concession Licence” costs 57% of a “Standard Licence” and applies to various State and Commonwealth card holders and fishers under 16. The key point is that no adult is exempt from these saltwater fisheries or for any inland fishing.
In Western Australia, where six recreational fisheries are subject to licensing, concessional licences cost 50% of the standard fee. Concessions apply to holders of various State and Commonwealth cards and to fishers under 16 years. The only exemptions apply to Aboriginal fishers taking fish for personal use “in accordance with continuing Aboriginal tradition“.
- MEDIA SENSITIVITY
If Victoria does require all adults to be licensed, there may be some Government nervousness about incidents where, for instance, an 88 year old is fined for fishing off a pier without a licence. Concerns such as “The media will have a field day” are needless. For decades, Victoria’s Fisheries Officers have handled similar encounters sensitively, as do their counterparts in Tasmania, WA and elsewhere.
AN ESTABLISHED PRINCIPLE
The principle that, ‘if you hunt you hold a licence’ has been firmly established in Victoria for many years. The VFA’s hunting counterpart, Game Management Victoria’s website states “Anyone hunting game in Victoria, including juniors (12–17 years), must hold a current Game Licence“.
As outlined in a previous article, Victorian Government guidelines clearly set out the principles under which cross-subsidies, where “free-riders” benefit from services paid for by others, should be avoided. That principle carries through in the State Concessions Act 2004 which, while providing for concessional fees for some government services, offers no exemptions.
Back in 1991, at the national recreational fishing conference in Canberra, Australian fishers and administrators heard a US keynote speaker advocate introducing young fishers to the precept that “If you fish, you hold a licence“. For decades, US states have issued free or low-cost fishing licences to children. This has borne fruit, including the universal acceptance of licensing among all adult fishers, for whom there are no exemptions.
Licensing under-18 year olds could be considered “world’s best practice”. The Tasmanian and WA examples, above, are just a hint of licensing policies elsewhere. Wherever junior licences apply, the popularity of fishing among children indicates that licensing proves no barrier to participation.
In NZ inland waters, annual licences for 12-17 year olds cost 20% of an adult licence and under-12s must hold free licences, renewable every year.
In British Columbia, every person fishing salt waters must hold a licence. Free licences are issued to those under 16 years and must be renewed every year. Regardless of age, everyone who fishes for salmon must have a CAN$6 Salmon Conservation Stamp on their licence.
The UK Environment Agency requires 12 to 16 year old fishers in England and Wales to hold licences which it issues free of charge; younger fishers do not require a licence.
There are great advances being made in areas such as on-line and phone-based licence applications and digital licences. As well as simplifying matters for fishers, the technical aspects of licensing schemes can be streamlined, often yielding cost savings. Expect to see Victoria’s RFL review to deliver such improvements.
However, as VRFish has highlighted, where real progress is needed is in the areas of fairness, revenue security, governance and accountability. If the Victorian Government, the VFA and recreational fishers approach the current review of the RFL system with an open positive mindset, recreational fishing in the State is on the brink of a great new era.
* Ross Winstanley is a keen angler, fishing writer and fisheries consultant. For 30 years he worked with Fisheries Victoria in policy, management, research and consultation with fishers. From the 1980s he was deeply involved in developments leading to the introduction of the RFL.