The Future of the Sportfish Restoration Fund

By Guest blogger, Patrick O’Rourke

Few of us in the field of fisheries don’t owe some sort of debt to the Sportfish Restoration (SFR) Fund for where we are today.  Whether we grew interested in the field because of resources managed by SFR dollars, completed projects in school funded by SFR, or, like me, got our first jobs out of grad school in SFR-funded positions, it is hard to overstate what a major component it is to how we fund fisheries work at our natural resource agencies. 

Much of the management research done by state fish and wildlife agencies is funded through the Sportfish Restoration Fund (Source: Patrick O’Rourke)

The unique method by which anglers and boaters pay into the trust fund via excise taxes on fishing tackle, boat fuel, and other associated items has stood the test of time since Dingell-Johnson was passed in 1950.  In the economic downturn of 2008, the SFR program helped save many state fisheries management programs from decimation by providing a steady stream of funding, matched at a 3:1 rate, while also providing statutory limitations that prevented state legislatures from diverting fishing license revenues from agencies to fill budget gaps elsewhere.

The SFR fund is reauthorized by Congress on a five-year basis as part of the larger Transportation Bill.  This might not make initial sense, but the biggest chunk of the fund comes from the 18.4 cents/gallon federal gasoline tax, the bulk of which goes into the Highway Trust Fund, with a small diversion of those taxes that are attributed to motorboats and small engines into SFR.  While the $400-500 million total annual value added to the SFR fund (68.4% of FY 2016 revenues, see below) from gasoline taxes is extremely significant to resource agencies, it’s a drop in the bucket relative to the approximately $40 billion that comes into the Highway Trust Fund each year to fund our nation’s transportation infrastructure.  Even so, many transportation advocates fear that revenue source is insignificant for transportation needs in the near future.

FY 2016 receipts into the Sportfish Restoration Trust Fund, from USFWS

Fuel economy for personal vehicles has more than doubled for both personal cars and trucks in the past four decades.  While this is great news for drivers paying at the pump as well as in reducing CO2 emissions, it is actually problematic for the balance sheet of the Highway Trust Fund. On average, it means that drivers pay half as much into the fund per mile driven.  In 2016, the Congressional Budget Office predicted that the Highway Trust Fund account would go insolvent by 2021. At that point, Congress will need to find additional revenue or consider cuts to federal transportation spending.

Even if Congress is able to plug the gap for transportation funding in the immediate future, the problem is likely to intensify going forward. One writer last year predicted that the internal combustion engine will essentially disappear by 2025 or 2030 in favor of electric vehicles. While that may be an aggressive prediction, even the auto companies are trending in this direction; Audi released a Super Bowl ad this year that laid out their plans to make 1/3 of their vehicles electric by 2025. Electric outboard boat motors may not be far behind, with rapid advances in speed and reliability. On the small engine front, electric alternatives are quickly challenging traditional gasoline equipment.  This poses two threats to the long-term sustainability of SFR funding:

  1. The revenue from the 18.4 cent/gallon fuel tax attributable to boats and small engines will decrease as boaters transition to electric power, possibly exacerbated by a lack of gasoline availability if the more aggressive predictions about automobiles come true.
  2. The funding model for the Highway Trust Fund is likely to go through significant changes, possibly transitioning away from using a gasoline tax, which may force structural changes in SFR’s funding mechanism.

Given all of this, it is important for fisheries professionals to begin thinking about how our work, particularly at the state level, is funded in a changing future.  It isn’t likely that things will change significantly over the next decade, but beyond that time frame the traditional funding model on which most state fish and game agencies are built might not be viable, at least at current employment levels. Legislative changes on these types of funds can be daunting processes; the current push to pass the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is a continuation of two decades of effort to provide state agency funding for at-risk species. It would be beneficial to all of us in the profession to begin formulating a strategy for when the time comes that we do have to address these funding challenges.  What that ultimately looks like, though, is a big question mark at this point.

While electric vehicles bring numerous benefits, they create uncertainty for programs funded on gasoline sales

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