Stamp of disapproval
Anglers say state agency has squandered fishing fee
Since early 2004, California sport fishermen have paid millions of dollars into a Department of Fish and Game fund intended to help protect and restore fisheries in the waterways of the San Francisco Bay-Delta river system, including the Sacramento River.
But between the installment of the Bay-Delta Sport Fishing Enhancement Stamp six years ago and its recent termination, the waterways’ fish populations, including chinook salmon, have crashed, and sport fishermen feel their money has gone to nothing.
In fact, much of it has gone nowhere. More than half of the stamp’s $9.7 million in revenues remains unspent in a DFG bank account.
Mark Clarke, for one, feels duped.
“I don’t think the money we’ve paid has benefited anything,” said Clarke, a river guide in Cottonwood who says fishing for salmon is now so bad that he has taken the past year off.
In Quincy, water-rights lawyer and fishing enthusiast Mike Jackson sees the decline of the Bay-Delta’s fisheries—such as striped bass—as symptomatic of severe inefficiencies within the DFG.
“The department at this point is almost dysfunctional,” Jackson said. “The idea that we’ve been paying extra to fish in a huge estuary with no more fish in it is counterintuitive.”
John Beuttler, conservation director for the California Sport Fishing Protection Alliance, one of several groups that helped to sponsor the legislation that created the Bay-Delta enhancement stamp, once believed in its integrity.
“We had championed the stamp as a means of enhancing the Bay-Delta’s fishing, but since the stamp was initiated, we’ve had two seasons without salmon fishing, the steelhead has been listed as an endangered species, and the striper fishery has just tanked.”
As of late-2008, the DFG had spent $1.2 million of the enhancement stamp’s proceeds on angler surveys, more than $250,000 on riverside parking improvements and shore access in Redding, $100,000 to improve an American River boat ramp, and $89,000 to install a fish-cleaning station in Sacramento, among other projects.
“Maybe a boat ramp would help if you’re going bird-watching, but it’s not much use for fishing right now,” Jackson said.
Karen Mitchell, environmental scientist with the DFG, said that to date $3.6 million has been spent or allocated. She acknowledges that not all fishing groups have agreed with the department’s choices on where to spend the money.
In 2008, the Bureau of State Audits reviewed the DFG’s use of the stamp’s proceeds. According to a letter from the bureau to the governor dated Oct. 16, 2008, the stamp to date had generated $8.6 million, of which the department had “only spent $1.6 million on projects and administrative costs, leaving a surplus of $7 million.”
The same audit also determined that $201,000 of those expenditures “were unrelated to fish-stamp activities.”
Beuttler thinks that roughly two-thirds of all expenditures, though technically in abidance to the stamp’s purpose, should have been reconsidered.
“What good does access to the water do if there’s nothing to catch?” he asked.
Legislation to expedite effective use of the stamp’s accumulated funds became law on Oct. 11, when the governor approved Assembly Bill 1052. The bill, introduced by Assemblywoman Anna Caballero (D-Salinas), also terminates the Bay-Delta stamp beginning Jan. 1, 2010.
A nine-member committee of volunteers appointed by the DFG in 2004 to advise on the most effective means of spending the enhancement stamp’s fund also was recently dismantled at the order of the DFG’s director, Terry Foreman. The committee had supported AB 1052 and had repeatedly voiced criticism of the DFG’s failure to address restoration of the Bay-Delta’s fisheries.
“This was retribution for AB 1052,” said Beuttler, who chaired the committee.
Phil Havlicek, a member of Coastside Fishing Club and also a former member of the advisory committee, thinks that the process of reappointing the committee is an unnecessary setback.
“It’s outrageous. In just a few years, 95 percent of our salmon run is gone,” he said. “It’s scary, and now the DFG decides they’re going to spend months getting a new committee up to speed.”
Mitchell said that a new stamp advisory committee should be in place before April and will consist of qualified members. As for the remaining money in the enhancement-stamp fund, she expects it will be spent within three years. To Mike Jackson, such slow spending may be a useless gesture.
“It’s way too late for the salmon, and the striped bass are going out as we speak,” he said. “I’m sure [DFG] will find something to spend the money on, but it won’t be fish in the Delta.”