The How's and Why's of Fishing Regulations
When an angler buys a fishing license, he or she is handed the Pennsylvania Summary of Fishing Regulations and Laws. Inside are all sorts of specific do's and don'ts that anglers need to follow when they're on a waterway.
Summary book

by Linda Steiner

The year 2000 fishing summary is 72 pages long. The rules range from how many of a certain fish can be kept in one day to what a person can and can't do on Fish & Boat Commission property, to many program and place-specific special regulations. They make for a long read.

Why are there so many laws and regulations, an angler might ask. Where did they all come from, and who decides the way I have to fish, anyway?

According to Guy Bowersox, Assistant to the Director of the Bureau of Law Enforcement, laws and regulations are different in how they are created. A law like the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Code is an act of the Pennsylvania Legislature. It deals with such weighty details as creating the Fish & Boat Commission and defining its duties, empowering the Commission to set seasons, sizes and creel limits, allowing it to establish and maintain fish hatcheries, and determining how its law enforcement officers will operate.

Certain state agencies, like the Fish & Boat Commission, are also empowered by law to adopt regulations. Although the Fish and Boat Code is not unchangeable, says Bowersox, provisions do take the state equivalent of the proverbial "act of Congress" to revise. Regulations, on the other hand, are more flexible and can be modified as needed by the Fish & Boat Commission itself, following a shorter procedure. The board of commissioners votes on proposed regulations at its meetings, held four times a year or more.

Before a regulation is adopted by the board of Fish & Boat Commissioners, it is published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin as proposed rulemaking, and a public comment period is offered. "The ability to set regulations allows the agency to react and make those changes or implement things to do routine, daily business or manage the resource, without going through the lengthy process of getting a law changed, and burdening the Legislature," Bowersox says.

Types of fishing rules that are best set by regulation include details of seasons, sizes and creel limits on fish species, both statewide and water-specific. If an angler notices a change from one year to the next in his fishing summary, the difference is probably the result of a regulation alteration. For this year, a "What's New For 2000?" box on page 11 details notable differences from 1999, including a new creel limit for trout (from 8 to 5), new bass fishing rules, new Panfish Enhancement regulations and more.

Bowersox says that regulations may begin as proposals the public sends in, they may originate from the board of commissioners, or they may start with the Fish & Boat Commission staff, perhaps a suggestion from a field officer or an area fisheries manager who sees a need, a problem or a way that angling or resource protection can be improved. The proposal for a regulation might be for a whole new regulation, a change to an existing rule, or even a call for elimination of a regulation. The proposal is made through the "chain of command," says Bowersox, and is reviewed by the Fish & Boat Commission's legal counsel and senior staff members. If determined that there is a valid basis for the proposed regulation, a formal proposal is prepared and taken before the board of commissioners for consideration.

Basically, fishing regulations address two fronts­management of the state's fishery resources and addressing the behavior of Pennsylvania's legion of anglers. People-control regulations protect the Fish & Boat Commission's property by setting guidelines for public use, like not allowing overnight camping, digging out shrubs and trees, disposing of rubbish, defacing signs and commercial use (without special permission).

Kinzua Creek, Allegheny National Forest, McKean County
photo-Linda and Bob Steiner

Regulation changes can also be the result of keeping up with the effect of technology on fishing, says Bowersox, as when modern gadgets, like electronic fish finders, influence catching success and contribute to overharvest. Organized, technologically advanced fishing contests, competing for the resource, can stimulate new regulations as the Commission tries to protect the safety of participants, consider the concerns of other anglers and protect the fishery itself. That's why permits are required for organized fishing events, and why they may not be approved or why they may require revision, like not allowing a tournament during the prime spawning period, says Bowersox.

Requiring the display of a fishing license may help anglers to "police themselves," says Bowersox, besides letting law enforcement officers determine quickly if fishermen have "paid for the privilege." A subtler, probably unintended effect of requiring the wearing of a fishing license is that it becomes a "badge of honor" that identifies a person as part of a special group­he or she is marked, proudly, as an angler.

According to Dick Snyder, Chief of the Fish & Boat Commission's Division of Fisheries Management, requiring licenses also helps the agency identify its user group. "It gives us a means of getting information into their hands, the summary booklet or other material," says Snyder. "If carried through to the nth degree electronically, we could get back to those [license buyers] and survey them for their expectations." Licensing gives the Commission an important user-group database, even if culling paper copies of licenses is required.

Regulation signs

Powell Creek, Dauphin County.
Fishing regulations sometimes address management of the state's fisheries
and the behavior of Pennsylvania anglers.
photo-Art Michaels

Licenses have been required of those angling in Pennsylvania since 1922. Licenses have expanded from the basic license to include a Trout/Salmon Permit and Tourist and Lifetime Senior Resident licenses. Snyder recounts how fisheries management regulations have changed through the years, too:

"Years and years ago, some regulations were designed and created on best judgment, with no data, but with common sense. Some of those same concepts, such as size and creel limits, have continued today and we continue to refine them. The Commission has given us the flexibility to fit regulations to unique situations statewide."

In the "old days," says Snyder, fishing regulations were set as if all habitats in the state were the same. Nowadays, fisheries can be managed through regulations, from individual waters to groups of similar habitats, developing them to their different potentials as a resource and their capability of providing angling recreation. In some places the goal could be producing larger fish, as in the Big Bass Program, requiring more restrictive rules on minimum size and creel limits than the more liberal statewide regulations.

"Primarily we use the more restrictive limits where we see that angler harvest is the reason fish population abundance is held down or the older and bigger fish are always cropped off," says Snyder. In general, in recent years the public has shown it wants more conservative regulations, with increased emphasis on fishing for fun instead of creel harvest. The limits are designed to make the harvest that is permitted more equitable to anglers as a group, as if all users are of equal skill and talent, he says.

The recent change from the longstanding creel limit of eight trout to five should not make a biological difference in natural trout fisheries, says Snyder, but "I'm glad the decision went that way. Five is a reasonable number as a creel limit." The change was more a "value call" by the Commission, he says, reflecting changing social perceptions on what constitutes a good day of fish-catching and what is appropriate and acceptable to kill and take home daily. "Those anglers who caught their limit before still will, but the others probably won't do much better, unless their angling skills improve," Snyder says.

Through its inventories of waterways, the fisheries management staff often notices the need for a regulation. With its surveys, area fisheries managers can determine a stream or lake's fishery health, including the densities of fish populations, growth rates, and age and size structure, and they can compare that information with other waters. Through regulations, they can increase fish numbers or the abundance of a highly desirable size fish. The staff recommendations are done in concert with the result of angler opinion surveys.

"We're inclined to give up some harvest if we can have better fish and a higher catch rate," says Snyder. In the 1980s, the Commission began implementing special regulations on specific waters, such as the Delayed-Harvest, Big Bass and Conservation Lakes programs. These programs grew out of Commission staff initiatives, says Snyder. Then anglers saw more fishing success and said, "We want more." However, some aquatic ecosystems won't handle too much fish population stockpiling, he adds, because natural mortality eventually takes "saved" fish.

For social reasons, the Commission is trying to keep the rules as broad as possible in terms of tackle­artificial-lures-only equipment­allowed in special regulation programs. Tackle restrictions excluding bait angling are designed to minimize the handling and hooking loss of fish, as in the Delayed-Harvest areas. The tackle restrictions there are designed to handle the intense fishing pressure and high catch rate and "recycle" a lot of trout to be caught again.

Sometimes regulations reflect concerns of landowners who allow fishing on their property. Some may balk at a flies-only or lures-only restriction on their water areas, as the Commission tries to maximize fishing and fishery resource potential there. The response in recent years has been the establishment of novel programs like All-Tackle Trophy Trout and All-Tackle Selective Harvest. With these and the associated length limits, says Snyder, the Commission has a better management tool to give anglers the benefit of catching more and bigger fish.

New for the year 2000 were Panfish Enhancement Special Regulations on a few select lakes statewide, setting minimum sizes and a lower creel limit (to 20 from 50) on crappies, sunfish and yellow perch. "Our thinking," says Snyder, "was that panfish are no different from the gamefish species, where we have for many years used a length limit to manage fisheries. We've seen that creel limits are relatively ineffective in regulating harvest, unless they are set very low."

Panfish New for the year 2000 were Panfish Enhancement Special Regulations on a few lakes statewide, setting minimum sizes and a lower creel limit (to 20 from 50) on crappies, sunfish and yellow perch.

 photo-Linda and Bob Steiner

Regulation sign

Caldwell Creek, Warren County
photo-Linda and Bob Steiner

Snyder explains that panfish often go through population swings, and the 50-panfish limit does not give the Commission much means to adjust harvest. A length limit, as in the Panfish Enhancement program, applies to each fish as it is caught, providing a management technique that can make better distribution of fish size. The new regulation does require anglers to be able to tell a bluegill and pumpkinseed from a crappie from a yellow perch. The reduced creel limit accompanying the Panfish Enhancement regulations was another "value call" of the Commission, says Snyder, because of the perception that a 50-fish kill was too large, trivializing the resource.

Concerning the new statewide regulations on bass fishing, calling for year-round fishing, changes in the creel/length limit throughout the year and setting a no-harvest period during the spawning season, Snyder says the changes came out of interest expressed by various angling groups and from fisheries staff. "We recognized confusion among anglers on what the closed season on bass meant," says Snyder, "and we looked at that part of our obligation that, besides resource conservation, provides for recreation. We realize we could go further in advocating bass fishing in the spring without jeopardizing fish stocks and clarify the issue of a closed season for anglers." And under the new regulations permitting catch-and-release spring bass fishing, it is unlawful for an angler to cast repeatedly into a clearly visible spawning nest in an effort to catch a bass.

Some regulations are a response to cross-jurisdiction management of fisheries, where lakes or rivers are on Pennsylvania's borders. The Delaware River, for example, has migratory species that travel into the Atlantic Ocean and may even lend an international flavor to fisheries management, says Snyder. Managing Lake Erie's fish stocks and setting harvest regulations is another "special case," requiring cooperation among New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and the province of Ontario, Canada. Pymatuning and Conowingo reservoirs, which cross state boundaries, also have fishing regulations that differ from the regular Commonwealth inland waters rules, as a response to shared management.

A case of same objective, different regulations can be seen in the shad fishing rules on the Susquehanna and Lehigh river systems, where shad runs are being reestablished. No shad harvest is allowed on the Susquehanna and its tributary, the Juniata, as part of the total restoration plan, says Snyder. "A zero creel limit reflects the seriousness of the shad restoration effort, and until we reach a certain ceiling in population, no harvest will be permitted." On the Lehigh, a tributary to the Delaware, where shad fishing is a historic spring rite, "we wrestled with no harvest or a limited harvest," says Snyder. The Lehigh is a small river system, and a one-shad limit is allowed, primarily to increase publicity and interest in shad fishing there. "If we can get some feedback on people catching shad in the Lehigh, that would be really outstanding," says Snyder.

"We always challenge our staff that if a regulation isn't working, for reasons we can identify, let's change it," says Snyder. Regulations are done with the idea that "let's try something, but let's give it a long enough trial to allow nature to have its ups and downs and average out," he says. When "Fish-for-Fun" areas were reevaluated in the early 1980s, some of them were on marginal trout streams that were mixed in with the top spring creeks. Regulation revisions moved the marginal waters into programs that are more suited to them. Similarly, the Commission broke with tradition when it allowed March fishing in trout-stocked lakes, that change coming about through a review of why these waters were closed. No regulation is etched in stone, says Snyder, and anglers should look for them to continue to evolve.

Bowersox echoes that expectation: "Fishing used to be such a simple sport, but as we learn more about our resources, and the public wants us to do a better job managing them, we have to delve into things more complex than in the good old days. Nowadays it's a greater challenge to accommodate everyone who wants to come out and enjoy our waterways and to provide good fishing for years to come."

In the end, it doesn't matter how many regulations are on the books, says Bowersox. The influence of these fishing rules is only as good as the enforcement of them and, especially, the compliance and acceptance that the public adds to the conservation and recreation effort.

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September/October 2000 Angler & Boater


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