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Our Opinion: Fishing freedom on the Fourth of July, red tape year-round

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Want to dust off the tackle box, grab the fishing poles and catch your own family seafood feast?

Next Thursday, you’re fine. On Friday, you might have to pay a fine.

Each year on the Fourth of July, North Carolina suspends its fishing license requirements for 23 hours and 59 minutes. No permit needed — just bait, patience and a bit of luck.

It’s intended as a symbolic nod to American freedom, but it serves instead as a reminder of how big government has wormed its way into too many aspects of our everyday lives. Fishing freedom on Independence Day is great, but what about the other 364 days of the year?

A unified inland and coastal recreational fishing license costs $40 for adult North Carolina residents. Nonresidents have to buy two licenses — $36 for inland fishing and $30 to fish coastal waters.

Unlike state licenses that permit us to operate motor vehicles on public roads and highways, fishing licenses don’t require any education or testing. Most can be ordered online. It’s a transparent cash grab without the public safety pretense.

License fees fund the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, which performs valuable work to conserve natural resources, ensuring that public lands and waterways remain viable to hunt and fish for future generations. But considering the minuscule impact recreational fishing has on marine populations, these costs should be borne by commercial fishermen, not weekend anglers.

As for the folks of modest means who fish to feed themselves, the state does offer a subsistence waiver. Residents who receive Medicaid, food stamps or Work First family assistance can obtain the free waivers through county social services departments.

That’s a step in the right direction, but paradoxically, it rewards dependence on public assistance and punishes self-sufficiency by requiring participation in government programs.

In November 2018, voters approved an amendment to the North Carolina Constitution that acknowledged the right to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife using undefined “traditional methods.” The amendment stipulates that this newly recognized right is “subject to laws passed by the legislature and rules to promote wildlife conservation and management and to preserve the future of hunting and fishing.”

In other words, nothing changed. North Carolina’s “right” to hunt and fish remains a mere privilege whose scope is defined by licensing requirements, fees and catch limits. The state constitution is supposed to limit lawmakers’ leeway, not give them boundless discretion.

Deregulating the commercial seafood industry could lead to overfishing, and we’ll concede there’s a compelling governmental interest in the enterprise. But there’s no evidence that nickel-and-diming recreational anglers is ecologically necessary.

Phasing out license requirements wouldn’t have to hobble conservation efforts. Private groups like the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, International Game Fish Association, Trout Unlimited, National Wild Turkey Federation and Ducks Unlimited could step in to fill the void through membership fees and fundraising campaigns.

Voluntary self-regulation is preferable to government using its power to shake people down. And it can be every bit as effective.

We hope folks from Murphy to Manteo enjoy this year’s fee-free fishing day. But don’t confuse a brief regulatory relaxation with the freedom Independence Day represents.

Would the American Revolution have been thwarted if only the British crown had granted colonists a 24-hour reprieve from that pesky tea tax?

This Times editorial is adapted from a previous version first published in 2018.

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