Province ponders new Crown waters rules

By James Foster

Times & Transcript Staff

The province wants to wring more money out of New Brunswick’s fabled Crown reserve system, which are stretches of fine salmon-angling waters reserved solely for residents.

The provincial Department of Natural Resources says the stretches are only producing about the half the revenue needed to maintain them and after the annual draw for the stretches is held every spring about half the stretches remain unclaimed.

“We’re losing about $200,000 per year on these Crown reserves,” says department spokesman Steve Benteau, “so that doesn’t make any sense.”

The reserves are located on the Miramichi and Restigouche river systems, with some trout lakes included. Only New Brunswickers can apply to fish there in an annual draw. While the draw is held to mete out the stretches to lucky fishermen because demand outstrips the supply, most of that demand is for prime fishing times on each stretch, Benteau said Friday. A mini-draw is held later for any remaining Crown stretches.

It all serves to show that there must be a better way of managing the stretches both for fishermen and the province, which wants services to pay for themselves as much as possible, so the department is exploring its options and consulting with user groups, Benteau said.

“If we could get more people to go, that would take care of the revenue issue,” Benteau said.

Some fishermen, however, fear the exercise is a thinly disguised way to boost fees.

“It hasn’t been that long ago that they raised the price considerably,” said Fred Wheaton, fisheries chairman for the New Brunswick Wildlife Federation.

“They’ve raised it so that the average working man can’t afford to fish Crown reserves any more. They’re taking away the waters from the blue-collar man and giving it to the white-collar man. They’re throwing away the basic principle behind it all.”

Wheaton is referring to DNR’s refrain that one of the main premises of the Crown waters system is so that the average New Brunswick fisherman can enjoy quality salmon fishing at a reasonable price. And his blue/white collar reference refers to the tracts of prime New Brunswick salmon fishing properties that are leased for top dollar by well-to-do groups and businesses — to the exclusion of everyone else. As well, in a throwback to feudal times, New Brunswick is one of the few jurisdictions that still respects riparian rights, which allows landowners in some cases to also hold the rights to the stretch of river that flows through or past their land, again excluding the average Joe fisherman.

Fishermen currently pay $104 each for the right to fish a Crown reserve stretch for 48 hours, most often including a camp for the fishermen to stay in. That’s up by more than $20 since 2010. Two years ago the province instituted an application fee as well of almost $8 per fishermen — most stretches host four fishermen at a time (a few host only two fishermen) meaning it costs anglers almost an extra $34 more just to apply, whether they get drawn for a stretch or not.

When you add the cost of travelling to the stretch, Wheaton contends most fishermen would find it too expensive if the price rises again and usage would actually go down. He argues that if the province wants to get more use out of the stretches, it should lower the price, not raise it.

Many of the ideas being bandied about the conference room table at the DNR do not involve higher fees but boosting usage, such as lowering the price for the stretches during periods where demand is typically low, though some are focused on money, such as hiking costs during those times when demand is high.

Benteau stressed that at this point, all options are being considered, users are being consulted and nothing has been decided. Fishermen can also provide their input via email from the department’s web site.

Some of the other options being considered to boost revenue, increase usage and make it easier to apply include cheaper fees for those whose stretches finish prematurely because fishing season ends during their Crown time; splitting parties (i.e. instead of one party of four fishermen, allowing two parties of two fishermen on some stretches,) booking unclaimed waters online, paying for your bookings online, awarding unclaimed stretches to runner-up parties (already started this year,) increasing bag limits on some reserved trout lakes to generate more interest, increasing the number of stretches you can apply for, allowing anglers to apply for daily and live-release stretches more often, boosting application fees, charging hefty fees to substitute party members, hiking licence costs, and charging additional fees for use of a camp.