The Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act explained

The Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act (16 U.S.C. 777 et seq.) was passed in 1950. Modeled after the Pittman-Robertson Act, it established a program of matching federal grants to the states and territories for projects for the “restoration and management of all species of fish which have material value in connection with sport or recreation in the marine and/or fresh waters of the United States,” i.e. species that anglers like to catch.

Like Pittman-Robertson, the Dingell-Johnson Act required states, as a condition of receiving funding, to first enact laws prohibiting the “diversion” of license fees paid by anglers for any purpose other than administration of their state fish agency. Every state did as required. While this established a reliable funding source for state wildlife agencies, it also created an incentive for the agencies to sell as many fishing licenses as possible.

Speckled Chub

Speckled Chub

Where does the money come from?

Dingell-Johnson funds are derived from federal excise taxes and import duties collected on various items and placed into a special account known as the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund. Originally fishing rods, reels and creels were the only items taxed. As with Pittman-Robertson, Congress has amended the Dingell-Johnson Act a number of times since its enactment to add to the lists of taxable items and purposes for which funds could be expended. This happened most notably with passage of the Wallop-Breaux Act in 1984 which expanded taxable items to include motorboat fuel–now the main source of Dingell-Johnson revenues.

Items currently taxed to generate Dingell-Johnson funds include:

  • The portion of federal fuel taxes (18.4 cents per gallon) attributable to motorboat fuel in the Highway Trust Fund
  • The portion of federal fuel taxes attributable to gasoline used in small outdoor engines in the Highway Trust Fund, e.g. lawnmower, snowblowers, etc.
  • Fishing equipment (10%)
  • Import duties on fishing equipment, pleasure boats and yachts
  • Electric outboard motors (3%)

The revenues generated from these taxes vary year to year both in total and by specific type of taxable item. Between FY2016 and FY2020, FWS reported gross receipts of $3.2 billion ($640 million annual average), generated as follows:

  • Gas (motorboats): 49%
  • Gas (small engines): 19%
  • Fishing tackle: 18%
  • Import duties (boats, fishing tackle): 9%
  • Fishing rods and poles: 3%
  • Electric outboard motors: <1%
  • Fishing tackle boxes: <1%

It should be noted that the way taxes are calculated on motorboats and, especially, small outdoor engines, is arcane and approximate. This 1987 report on how the IRS estimates motorboat fuel use is the most recent explanation available on the internet. I was unable to find any similar documentation about how any government entity estimates the amount of fuel used in small engines.

Where does the money go?

After being deposited into the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, funds are deducted annually for the following purposes:

  1. Program administration
  2. Multistate conservation grants ($3 million)
  3. Sport Fishing and Boating Partnership Council ($400K)
  4. Four interstate fisheries commissions ($800K)

The remaining funds are disbursed as follows:

  1. Coastal wetlands protection programs (18.5% of total receipts to trust fund). Most, but not all, of these funds are used in coastal states. Fifteen percent goes to the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund for matching grants for wetlands conservation projects in non coastal as well as coastal states.
  2. Grants to states and nonprofits for recreational boating safety programs (18.5% of receipts)
  3. Grants to states to construct pump-out and dump stations to dispose of sewage from recreational boaters (2% of receipts)
  4. Matching grants to states to install or upgrade docking facilities for recreational boats 26 feet or longer (2%)
  5. A National Outreach and Communications Program administered by the non-profit Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation that provides grants to states and nonprofits to increase participation in fishing and recreational boating. (2% of receipts) Note: this is the DJ version of “3R” activities for hunters and recreational shooters.
  6. Grants to states under the Sport Fish Restoration Program (57%).

By far the Sport Fish Restoration Program receives the largest share of Dingell-Johnson funds. In FY2021 a total of $414 million was apportioned to the states and territories under this program. As with PR, the amount a state receives is determined by formula: 60 percent is based on a state’s number of licensed anglers and 40 percent on its geographic size. No state can receive more than 5 percent or less than one percent of each year’s total apportionment.  As with Pittman-Robertson, the apportionment formula creates a financial incentive for states to maximize fishing license sales.

According to FWS regulations, the following activities are eligible for funding under DJ Sport Fish Restoration Act:

Sport Fish Restoration program:

  • Restore and manage sport fish for the benefit of the public.
  • Conduct research on the problems of managing fish and their habitat and the problems of fish culture if necessary to administer sport fish resources efficiently.
  • Obtain data to guide and direct the regulation of fishing. These data may be on:
    • Size and geographic range of sport fish populations;
    • Changes in sport fish populations due to fishing, other human activities, or natural causes; and
    • Effects of any measures or regulations applied.
  • Develop and adopt plans to restock sport fish and forage fish in the natural areas or districts covered by the plans; and obtain data to develop, carry out, and test the effectiveness of the plans.
  • Stock fish for recreational purposes.
  • Acquire real property suitable or capable of being made suitable for:
    • Sport fish habitat or as a buffer to protect that habitat; or
    • Public access for sport fishing. Closures to sport fishing must be based on the recommendations of the State fish and wildlife agency for fish and wildlife management purposes.
  • Restore, rehabilitate, improve, or manage:
    • Aquatic areas adaptable for sport fish habitat; or
    • Land adaptable as a buffer to protect sport fish habitat.
  • Build structures or acquire equipment, goods, and services to:
    • Restore, rehabilitate, or improve aquatic habitat for sport fish, or land as a buffer to protect aquatic habitat for sport fish; or
    • Provide public access for sport fishing.
  • Construct, renovate, operate, or maintain pumpout and dump stations. A pumpout station is a facility that pumps or receives sewage from a type III marine sanitation device that the U.S. Coast Guard requires on some vessels. A dump station, also referred to as a “waste reception facility,” is specifically designed to receive waste from portable toilets on vessels.
  • Operate or maintain:
    • Projects that the State fish and wildlife agency completed under the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act; or
    • Facilities that the agency acquired or constructed with funds other than those authorized by the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act if these facilities are necessary to carry out activities authorized by the Act.
  • Coordinate grants in the Sport Fish Restoration program and related programs and subprograms.
  • Provide technical assistance.
  • Make payments in lieu of taxes on real property under the control of the State fish and wildlife agency when the payment is:
    • Required by State or local law; and
    • Required for all State lands including those acquired with Federal funds and those acquired with non-Federal funds.

Sport Fish Restoration—Recreational Boating Access subprogram:

  • Acquire land for new facilities, build new facilities, or acquire, renovate, or improve existing facilities to create or improve public access to the waters of the United States or improve the suitability of these waters for recreational boating. A broad range of access facilities and associated amenities can qualify for funding, but they must provide benefits to recreational boaters. “Facilities” includes auxiliary structures necessary to ensure safe use of recreational boating access facilities.
  • Conduct surveys to determine the adequacy, number, location, and quality of facilities providing access to recreational waters for all sizes of recreational boats.

Sport Fish Restoration—Aquatic Resource Education subprogram:

  • Enhance the public’s understanding of water resources, aquatic life forms, and sport fishing, and develop responsible attitudes and ethics toward the aquatic environment.

Sport Fish Restoration—Outreach and Communications subprogram:

  • Improve communications with anglers, boaters, and the general public on sport fishing and boating opportunities.
  • Increase participation in sport fishing and boating.
  • Advance the adoption of sound fishing and boating practices including safety.
  • Promote conservation and responsible use of the aquatic resources of the United States.

Dingell-Johnson vs conservation

If the definition of “wildlife conservation” is related to the goal of preserving native species and ecosystems, Dingell Johnson funded activities actually work against conservation in a number of ways:

  • Most native fishes are not of interest to anglers and hence do not meet the definition of “sport fish.” Dingell-Johnson funds cannot be used for projects to benefit them directly. For example, of New Mexico’s nearly 100 fish species (including some introduced species), 68 are not considered sport fishes. Very few native fish species are considered sport fish.
  • Dingell-Johnson can be used to raise and stock nonnative sport fishes. For example, the state of NM raises and releases 15 million nonnative hatchery fishes annually for the benefit of anglers, including predatory rainbow trout and walleye.
  • Nonnative sportfish often harm native fishes by eating them, competing with them ecologically, or hybridizing with them. For example, native Gila trout in New Mexico are endangered due to hybridization with hatchery-raised brown and rainbow trout.
  • Nonnative sport fish also harm other native aquatic species. For example, stocking of nonnative trout in Sierra Nevada lakes in California has contributed to the endangerment of native frog species.
  • Like Pittman-Robertson funds, much Dingell-Johnson funding is used for projects that are not connected to conservation at all, such as increasing boating access, promoting boating safety and recruiting anglers and recreational boating participants.

At least a third of Dingell-Johnson funds are generated by non-anglers

As with Pittman-Robertson, it is often said that “sportsmen” pay for wildlife conservation in part through their purchase of items that are taxable under Dingell-Johnson. In fact, it is likely that at least one-third of Dingell-Johnson funds are generated through the purchase of items not used for fishing.

Of the taxable items, the fuel tax is by far the most significant revenue source, generating more than two-thirds of Dingell-Johnson funds each year, with motorboat fuel sales accounting for 49 percent and small-engine fuel sales another 19 percent. Obviously small engine equipment such as lawn mowers are not used for fishing, so that can be taken off the table right away. Just looking at motorboats, two types of boats not generally used for fishing–jet skis and wake sport boats–accounted for 30 percent of new motorboat sales in 2019. If we subtract the contribution of the fuel tax on small engines and motorboats not used for fishing, it suggests that more than one-third of Dingell-Johnson funds are not generated by anglers.[1]

[1] .19 + (.30 x .49)=.34