Stamp of disapproval

Sports fishermen say Department of Fish and Game misusing San Francisco Bay and Delta fishing fees

The Coastside Fishing Club’s Phil Havlicek displays a 30-pound king salmon caught off the Marin coast in 2007, the last year of California salmon fishing.

The Coastside Fishing Club’s Phil Havlicek displays a 30-pound king salmon caught off the Marin coast in 2007, the last year of California salmon fishing.

Photo courtesy of phil havlicek

Since early 2004, the California Department of Fish and Game has amassed $9 million in revenues through sales of an optional fishing stamp that allows licensed anglers to fish in the waterways of San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The proceeds are intended to help restore fisheries in the estuary and its tributaries.

But the department has failed to effectively utilize proceeds from the Bay-Delta Sport Fishing Enhancement Stamp, say members of several fishing and conservation organizations. The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Coastside Fishing Club and other groups have accused the DFG of neglecting to use roughly $7 million in funds generated by the stamp’s sales at a time when fish populations, including that of chinook salmon, are at all-time lows.

The Bay-Delta enhancement stamp took effect January 1, 2004. The stamp, which anglers adhere to the back of their fishing licenses, currently cost $6.30.

“We had hoped that money from the stamp would be spent on the primary purpose of the legislation,” said John Beuttler, conservation director for the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, one of several groups that sponsored the legislation that created the stamp in 2001. “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 at Discovery Park in Sacramento, among other projects.

“What good does a cleaning station or a boat ramp do us when there’s no fish in the river and no water in the river?” said Phil Havlicek, a member of both Coastside Fishing Club and of the Bay-Delta enhancement stamp’s advisory committee, a nine-member group of volunteers appointed by the DFG in 2004 to discuss the most effective use of the enhancement stamp’s proceeds.

Karen Mitchell, environmental scientist with the DFG, said that to date, $3.6 million has been spent or allocated. She acknowledges that the DFG and committee members have not always seen eye to eye.

“The advisory committee members wanted funds to benefit fishery health rather than access projects, a boat ramp or cleaning stations,” said Mitchell.

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 October 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.”

Legislation to expedite effective use of the stamp’s accumulated funds became law on October 11, when the governor approved Assembly Bill 1052. The bill, introduced by Assemblywoman Anna Caballero of Salinas, also terminates the Bay-Delta stamp beginning January 1, 2010.

The current advisory committee members’ days are numbered, too. On November 30, the DFG’s director, Terry Foreman, told the volunteers at a meeting that most of them would soon be replaced. The committee had supported A.B. 1052 and had repeatedly voiced criticism of the DFG’s failure to address restoration the Bay-Delta’s fisheries.

Havlicek believes 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.”