Following a public hearing that lasted approximately 90 minutes and featured public comment from more than 20 people, the Delaware Parks & Recreation Council voted this week to raise the surf-fishing permit fees this year, and to cap the number of permits issued annually at 17,000.
The state’s Parks & Recreation Council, which advises DNREC’s Division of Parks & Recreation, unanimously approved the decisions Jan. 17 during the monthly P&R Advisory Council meeting at the Dover Public Library, with an estimated 85 people in attendance. The council came to their decision after reviewing more than 100 written comments from individuals and organizations that had been submitted prior to the meeting, as well as hearing comments from roughly 20 people who commented during the day’s proceedings.
“I think it went well, and I appreciate these folks really taking the time to become informed on the issue,” said Parks & Recreation Director Ray Bivens said afterwards. “My guess is that the folks that are in this room are not part of the problem. These are people that are passionate … they want to follow the rules.
“And we want to make sure the message is out there that we are serious about enforcement. We wrote triple the tickets this year for people not being actively engaged or not having the proper permit, and that’s going to continue.”
The now-approved changes to the surf-fishing program will take effect on Friday, Feb. 1. Yearly surf-fishing permit fees will increase from $80 to $90 for all Delaware residents, whereas out-of-state residents will see a $20 increase in their fees, to $180 for the annual permit. The permit holders will continue to be able to utilize the additional benefit the permit provides as an annual pass to all of the state’s 17 state parks.
According to Bivens, the funding raised by the fee increase is going toward continued efforts to ensure the public safety, and to continue improving the experience for visitors to the Delaware State Parks, which includes the surf-fishing permit holders at designated multi-use beaches. The increase, he said, is a part of DNREC’s priority to “ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for all visitors to Delaware’s award-winning state parks system.”
The 17 parks in the state cover 26,000 acres and are visited annually by an approximate 5.8 million people each year. The system is 65 percent self-funded and had $20 million in self-generated revenue in 2018.
Last year alone, the state issued 17,361 surf-fishing permit tags, which was an increase of 221 from 2017. More than half of the surf-fishing permits issued in 2018 (51.2 percent) came from residents of Sussex County.
For comparison, the fee charged by Delaware’s P&R is much lower than in other states that charge for annual surf-fishing permits. At Island Beach State Park in New Jersey, the cost of their permit is $195 for residents ($225 for non-residents), while at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, the cost of the permit is $120.
During the public comment period on Jan. 17, the most common concern expressed was the need for more enforcement from park rangers with regards to the current surf-fishing rules and regulations.
During the meeting, the Division of Parks & Recreation presented its findings of its top five citations over a three-year period, with increases shown — especially with regards to citations of those not actively engaged/no fish equipment, which saw 87 citations made in 2018. That was up from 26 citations in 2017.
Also announced at the meeting were the addition of another full-time DNREC park ranger, and the expansion of the rangers’ work week from 37.5 to 40 hours. That will create 1,000 additional hours of expanded coverage annually for the coastal parks.
To further help the rangers with their enforcement efforts, the Division of Parks & Recreation had unveiled in October its new smartphone app, Tip411. The app will allow users to submit anonymous tips to rangers if they see vehicles speeding on the beach, people driving recklessly, suspicious activity or even surf-fishing violations. The app can be downloaded from the Apple or Google Play app stores. For more information, check out the website at dnrec.alpha.delaware.gov/tip411.
“The General Assembly giving us authority that our park patrol officers could write tickets would be a huge help,” Bivens said of ways to help the rangers with enforcement, especially with regards to the “actively-engaged” rule, which he emphasized will continue to be a priority. “We’ve increased the hours of our enforcement officers, and we have the brand new officer, so that is also a big help. That Tip411 app makes connection to our rangers more convenient and makes their job a lot easier.”
As for the need for the cap of 17,000 permits, Bivens said that it simply comes down to managing overcrowding issues, especially with the growth of resort towns in eastern Sussex County. There were reportedly 2,975,059 visitors total at Cape Henlopen, Delaware Seashore and Fenwick Island state parks in 2018. The current growth of surf-fishing permits is just not sustainable, officials said.
The issuance of surf-fishing permits has continuously grown since 2011, with a 53 percent increase from then to 2018. That has created a challenge for the management of the multi-use beaches that allow surf-fishing, walk-ons, swimming and surfing.
“Issuing a first-come, first-served cap on the number of permits issued is the best way to be equitable to all beach users, to manage a limited resource and to protect against overcrowding our beaches in the future,” Bivens explained.
There are seven full-time rangers for the coastal region, with an additional 27 seasonal park patrol officers who cover shifts in the coastal-region campgrounds 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
With 65 percent of the funds used to operate and maintain the parks coming from the collection of user fees, revenue generated by the new fee increase will be aimed at advancing the Division of Parks & Recreation’s efforts to improve increase enforcement efforts, improve amenities and better educate parks’ visitors on the state’s multi-use beaches.
The authority to increase park user fees is included in Section 87 of the 2019-fiscal-year state bond bill, and requires “adequate opportunity for public comment and approval of the appropriate public advisory council.” The Parks & Recreation Council is an 11-member board, appointed by the governor, that serves in an advisory capacity to DNREC’s Division of Parks & Recreation.
To watch video of the Delaware Parks & Recreation Council hearing, including all of the individuals who spoke during the public comment period, check out the pinned post on the Coastal Point sports Facebook page, which includes the PowerPoint slides containing all of the information provided to those in attendance during the Jan. 17 presentation.
By Jason Feather