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State lawmakers frustrated by chaotic surf fishing tag rollout

Roman Battaglia
Delaware Public Media

Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control spent Monday explaining the surf fishing tag debacle to state lawmakers.

Members of the Joint Finance Committee were frustrated with the lackluster rollout of surf fishing tags this year, which sold out in just a few hours after website crashes and long lines at state park offices angered many Delawareans.

JFC chair Trey Paradee says recent changes to the program have contributed to the chaos the state saw this year.

“A lot of the hysteria that we’ve seen this year and last year in terms of when the window opens and everybody rushing to buy these tags — was created simply by the fact that a cap was created,” says Paradee. “That once people hear that there was a cap, it was like, oh my gosh I gotta get one of these things right away.”

DNREC implemented a 17,000 tag cap back in 2019. DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin says the cap is needed to protect Delaware’s natural resources and prevent overcrowding.

“Any option we come up with, there’s gonna be somebody who’s not gonna be happy with because there’s a limited amount of space,” Garvin says. “Which is why we introduced the off-peak tags so that people can still get down during the times when it’s less crowded.”

Enforcement is also another reason for the cap on surf fishing tags. Garvin says sometimes people think the tag is just a permit to drive their car onto the beach, and don’t realize participants need to be actively fishing or risk getting kicked off the beach.

But, Garvin says DNREC is struggling with recruitment and retention of patrol staff, who make less than $15/hour according to DNREC’s website.

State lawmakers agree changes should be made to ensure more Delawareans can enjoy what’s clearly a popular resource. A few proposed changes include allowing Delaware residents priority access to surf fishing tags and removing the online component completely, forcing people to head to a state park office to purchase a tag.

Paradee says most people who buy these tags aren’t coming to the beach very often, some may only use the tags a couple times per year.

Garvin says his department is looking at technological and policy changes to ensure more Delawareans can enjoy the popular surf fishing tag program; but stresses many of those changes would come with further costs.

Roman Battaglia is a corps member withReport for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Roman Battaglia grew up in Portland, Ore, and now reports for Delaware Public Media as a Report For America corps member. He focuses on politics, elections and legislation activity at the local, county and state levels.