Something's fishy in rulings

DNR can't check fishing boats without probable cause

Two recent Appeals Court ruling on the rights of anglers looked reasonable at first glance, but appear to be unworkable in practice.

The rulings put new restrictions on Department of Natural Resources conservation officers seeking to enforce state fishing regulations. They require the officers to ask for permission to enter ice-fishing houses to make inspections or to check the contents of a fishing boat.

The rulings apply the same standards that are used to restrict police officers from entering a home or inspecting a driver's car. In both cases, the officer must seek permission, unless there is probable cause for making such an inspection.

In each case, it appears at first glance that the new fishing law enforcement guidelines are an enhancement of personal freedoms and a needed limit on police powers.


Critics have a different view, however. They say anglers are using a public body of water to harvest the fish, a public resource. There are many necessary limits on what kind of fish and what size of fish can be caught and when they can be caught. Without those limits, the state's freshwater fish -- a valuable resource -- could be depleted.

With the new regulations, however, the conservation officers cannot carry out their jobs. If an angler has taken fish illegally, he or she can conceal the evidence by refusing to allow an inspection of his catch. Since many anglers store their fish in live wells with lids, it would be possible to conceal a large number of fish that a conservation officer could not check without permission.

Although most anglers observe the rules, the new restrictions would take away the DNR's enforcement powers. As a result, effective enforcement of the state's fishing laws would be impossible and the DNR would lack the authority to protect the supply of fish in public lakes and streams.

; It is also true that searching a home or a car is not quite the same as searching an ice-house or a fishing boat. Both a home and a car are privately owned and can be used for a variety of legitimate purposes that should not be subject to police surveillance. In contrast, lakes and streams are public property and there are relatively few other uses for a fishing boat or an ice-fishing house.

In addition, we believe most anglers approve of the current enforcement policy. If the new restrictions are upheld, they will not benefit the law-abiding anglers. Instead, they will offer a new incentive to others to catch more fish than the law allows and to avoid other limits that are imposed to avoid depleting the supply of fish.

For those reasons, it is not unreasonable to allow DNR officers to make such inspections as are necessary to make certain that laws are enforced.

We believe most anglers would agree with that conclusion and regard the current policy as a reasonable price for being able to catch the fish -- a public resource.

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