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Fresh rules afloat
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« on: June 03, 2011, 08:28:58 PM »

Fresh rules afloat

New laws passed by the 82nd Texas Legislature feature boater education, hand-fishing
Copyright 2011 Houston Chronicle

Anyone with the urge to wade neck-deep in a Texas river or lake, stick their arms into undercut banks and washouts until they feel the slick sides of a big catfish, slip their hand into the fish's yawning mouth, clamp down and try wrestling the much-displeased, yard-long or longer beast from its lair now has the official blessing of Texas law.

All the state requires of someone wanting to go mano-a-mano with a monster cat is a valid fishing license. And if they're age 75 or older, they don't even need that.

Legalizing the long-prohibited practice of "hand-fishing" for catfish and exempting anglers 75 and older from fishing license requirements are just two of the results of outdoors-related bills passed during the 82nd regular session of the Texas Legislature.

Before the biennial, 140-day session ended earlier this week, legislators passed more than two-dozen bills directly impacting fishing, boating, hunting, state park funding and other outdoor recreation issues.

They range from the strictly symbolic (designating redfish as the official state saltwater fish) to the stunningly sweeping (implementing mandatory boater education).

Here's a look at some of the boating- and fishing-related changes wrought by lawmakers:

On Sept. 1, Texas will join a small but growing list of states requiring boat operators take and complete a state-certified boater education course before legally operating most powerboats and wind-blown vessels on public water.

Under terms of House Bill 1395 by Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, the mandatory boater education requirements will apply to persons born on or after Sept. 1, 1993, who operate a boat with a motor of more than 15 horsepower or a wind-blown vessel measuring more than 14 feet in length.

Those born before Sept. 1, 1993, are exempt from the boater education requirement.

Texas' state-approved boater education course can be taken as a one-day, classroom training, as a home-study course or as an online course. Costs range from $13 for classroom course to about $25 for the home-study course.

Boaters falling under the boater education requirement will be required to carry a valid ID and documentation of having taken and passed a boater education course.

The bill, which passed by a 134-7 vote in the Texas House and unanimous approval in the Texas Senate, allows a person charged with violating the requirements (a Class C misdemeanor carrying a $500 maximum fine) to have the charge dismissed if the violator takes and completes a boater education course within 90 days.
Panel pushes bill

Efforts to pass mandatory boater education have failed in each of at least the last four sessions of the Legislature. Much of the credit for the passage of HB 1395 rests on the recommendations of a Legislature-created Advisory Panel on Boating Safety created by the 2009 Legislature with a membership that included public policy professionals, recreational boaters, anglers and members of the boating industry.

That panel recommended several actions, including implementing mandatory boater education, to improve boater safety in Texas, which has in recent years seen boating-related deaths, per 100,000 registered boats, twice the national average.

Other boating-related legislation approved in the just-ended session include bills integrating a boating safety video and boater safety instruction into Texas motor vehicle driver education courses, clarifying personal flotation device requirements for vessels less than 26 feet in length and modifying requirements for reporting of boating-related accidents by both citizens involved in the incidents and law enforcement.

Catching catfish by hand ? "noodling" or "grappling," to most people - is now legal in Texas after being prohibited for at least most of the last century.

HB 2189 by Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, and sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, passed by a 142-2 margin in the House and unanimously in the Senate - well over the two-thirds majority required for the bill to go into effect as soon as it is passed.

The bill allows a person holding a valid fishing license and freshwater fishing stamp to take catfish by hand. (Taking free-swimming catfish by using a gaff, pole hook, trap or spear remains prohibited.)

The bill gives the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission authority to set rules governing hand-fishing for catfish. But such rules are months away.

Until those rules are adopted, "noodlers" are under the same catfish bag and size limits as more traditional anglers, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials said.
Age drives amendment

The Texas Legislature 15 years or so ago removed a long-time fishing license exemption for those age 65 and older. It continued the fishing license exemption for those born before Sept. 1, 1930, and created a reduced-fee license (about half the cost of a regular license) for those 65 and older.

Every session since then, Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, has filed legislation to reinstate the senior citizen fishing license exemption.

This session, he finally succeeded. Kind of.

As originally filed, Dutton's HB 550 would have reinstated the over-65 fishing license exemption for Texas residents.

In a House committee, it was amended to waive fishing license fees for those born on or before Jan. 1, 1931, and passed the House in that version.

In the Senate, the bill was amended to exempt Texas residents 75 and older from fishing license requirements, and it passed in that form.

In the final frantic days of the session, the House voted to accept the Senate version.

According to the Legislative Budget Board, exempting Texas residents 75 and older from reduced-fee fishing licenses will result in steadily increasing loss of revenue to the fund supporting state fisheries programs. The LBB estimates waiving the fees will result in a revenue reduction of $356,000 for the 2012 fiscal year, $424,000 for 2013 and $712,000 by the 2016 fiscal year.

While fishing license fees will evaporate for Texans 75 and older, those younger than 75 and fishing public fresh water will continue paying an annual $5 fee originally set to expire after 10 years.

HB 790 by Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, repeals the Sept. 1, 2014 expiration date of the Texas Freshwater Fishing Stamp. The stamp that all freshwater anglers must purchase, in addition to a fishing license, was created by the 2003 Legislature as a temporary method of financing construction of a major new fish hatchery in East Texas, long-needed repairs and improvements to other hatcheries and funding for fisheries programs such as the annual wintertime rainbow trout stocking in public waters.

The freshwater stamp generates almost $6 million a year - money TPWD has gotten used to having available.

The agency can now count on that income; HB 550 passed the House with a 141-1 vote and was unanimously approved in the Senate. The Freshwater Fishing Stamp is now a permanent requirement.
Leveling the playing field

Before May 21, when Gov. Rick Perry signed HB 1806 by Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, committing fraud - cheating - in freshwater fishing tournaments was a violation of Texas law. Cheating in saltwater tournaments wasn't.

HB 1806 makes fraud in any fishing tournament - freshwater or saltwater - a crime and adds a couple offenses (altering the length or width of a fish entered in a tournament or entering a fish obtained by violating any provisions of the law) to the definition of fraud.

Before the bill became law, these "deceptive acts" were not illegal by themselves.

Proponents of the legislation pointed out that when the fishing tournament fraud law was originally passed in the 1980s, bass tournaments were about the only fishing contests offering significant prizes.

That has changed over the last two decades. Saltwater tournaments targeting speckled trout, redfish, billfish, offshore species and other marine fish now are very common in Texas, with some offering prizes approaching six figures.

Violation of Texas' fishing tournament fraud law is a Class A misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of a $4,000 fine and a year in jail.

If the violation occurs in one of the dozens of tournaments offering a prize of $10,000 to an individual angler or team of anglers, the violation escalates to a third-degree felony carrying a fine of as much as $10,000 and 2-10 years in prison.

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