Unfortunate License

The very thought that walking down a Vineyard beach and casting a fishing line into the ocean will require a license would appall and anger generations of fishermen stretching deep into the Island’s past.

The same restriction on fishing in freshwater ponds likely would have struck Island fishermen of past centuries as a foolhardy and unwarranted invasion of the government in a matter that was none of its business.

For decades, however, fishermen on the Vineyard and across Massachusetts have paid the state for an annual license that allows them to engage in freshwater fishing.

That willingness is based at least partly on a quid pro quo, in which the state stocks ponds with fish.

No such quid pro quo is anticipated or even thinkable in the ocean, a vast and mysterious world where fish go where they will.

The impetus for the license comes from the federal government, charged with managing fish stocks in United States territorial waters. The government, which long has regulated commercial fishermen in its waters, wants to get a better sense of what effect recreational fishermen are having on ocean fish. Many species are in serious decline. The license is intended as a tool to help gather information on the stocks.

Indeed, the majority of coastal states already require saltwater recreational fishing licenses on their own. Massachusetts and other New England states remain among the holdouts. Starting next year, however, the federal government will require a license.

Massachusetts still can opt to enact its own license, which will cover the federal mandate. With its own license, the state at least can steer accompanying revenue back into fishery projects, including public boat ramps. Any federal license revenue would go into the general treasury fund.

That any sort of license will be required for noncommercial fishing in the ocean sticks in the craw. Whether the license even will generate much useful information is open to question.

Ocean fish stocks, however, have fallen into such decline as to require some sort of additional action from the government, an entity that theoretically can arise above selfish interests to protect a resource. As distressing as it is, more regulation may be the last, best hope for the fisheries.