Did you know that every time you buy a rod, reel, or flies, you’re helping your state’s fisheries? Thanks to the Dingell-Johnson Act, you’re probably contributing to conservation and fisheries management without even knowing it. So, what is it?
An Overview of the Dingell-Johnson Act
The Dingell-Johnson Act, or Federal Aid in Sport Fish Recreation Act, allows for a 10% excise tax on sport fishing and boating equipment. Each state can then use the tax money to fund fishing and boating recreation management.
An excise tax is an indirect tax applied to specific goods or activities. This means that instead of the consumer paying the tax directly during a transaction, the producer of the good pays the tax and factors it into the price. In this case, the “specific goods” are fishing and boating equipment.
Every time you purchase these goods, you’re repaying a tax that has already been paid by the manufacturer. You’ll never see that tax added to your bill at the store.
The funds generated go toward all sorts of efforts. This could be anything from fish sampling and stocking to events and education, or facilities like piers or boat ramps. It’s a good example of a “user-pay” model where those using the system the most are also providing the majority of the funding.
The Dingell-Johnson Act has its roots in WWII-era America. Before the war, the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, or Pittman-Robertson Act, was doing wonders for the hunting world. This excise tax on hunting equipment was replenishing habitat and bringing game species back from the brink of collapse.
Seeing the success of the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Act, Congressman Frank Buck wanted to create something similar for the fishing world. In 1939, he proposed his bill, which was quickly shot down. Two years later he tried again, and a bill was passed, but not what he had in mind.
The government established an excise tax on rods, reels, and other fishing gear, but funneled the money straight into the war effort. So, hunting gear was successfully paying for game conservation, but fishing gear was paying for WWII.
But, a few years later things were looking brighter.
By 1950, after the war was over, the vision changed. Thanks to efforts by John Dingell, a Congressman from Michigan, and Edwin Johnson, a Senator from Colorado, the focus of the bill shifted from funding the war back to its original purpose. Money collected from the tax was now going toward habitat acquisition and restoration, fish stocking, research, and surveys.
This was the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Recreation Act, or Dingell-Johnson Act, named for its champions.
The Wallop-Breaux Amendment
Lots of amendments have been made over the years, but the biggest was in 1984. This was called the Wallop-Breaux Amendment, after Congressman John Breaux and Senator Malcolm Wallop, who led the charge. This amendment expanded the list of sport fishing gear that qualified for the 10% excise tax. It also added a 3% tax on certain motors and fish finders. In addition, it expanded the projects that the tax could fund to include boating facilities, education programs, and more.
The problem had been that the Pittman-Robertson Act in the hunting industry was blowing Dingell-Johnson out of the water in terms of money raised, more than twice as much. By extending the list of qualifying equipment, this amendment took the funding from $38 million to $122 million in one year.
Funding from the excise tax is still supporting fisheries today. Together, the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson Acts raised $1.4 billion (yes, with a “b”) for conservation projects in 2017. The year before, they brought in $1.1 billion.
While these funds are crucial in maintaining the amazing sport fisheries we have in the US, it’s important to remember how the excise tax works, and how you can make the most of it. Because the tax applies to the initial cost of the item (not what it’s sold for in stores), gear made in the US brings in the most money. While buying from overseas is appealing to companies because of the lower cost, that lower cost brings in a lower tax. This means less money goes toward the fund.
When possible, buying American-made gear not only supports our economy, but also benefits the fisheries we care so much about.