Fishing Rights Bill Wins Final Passage in General Assembly

Dave Williams

Thursday, March 28th, 2024

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Legislation guaranteeing Georgians the right to hunt and fish in the state’s navigable rivers and streams is on its way to Gov. Brian Kemp.

The state Senate gave final passage to House Bill 1172 Tuesday night 34-18, with a sizable contingent of opponents arguing it doesn’t go far enough to protect public access.

The General Assembly hurriedly passed a bill on the final day of last year’s legislative session guaranteeing public fishing and hunting rights after a property owner along the Upper Flint River had won a lawsuit seeking to ban public fishing along his stretch of the river.

After the legislation took effect last July, some waterfront property owners raised concerns over a provision that declared Georgia citizens’ right to use the state’s waterways under the “public trust doctrine.”

House Bill 1172 addressed property owners’ fears by removing that provision. But the legislation still retains its underlying purpose of ensuring Georgians’ right to hunt and fish in navigable waterways, Sen. Sam Watson, R-Moultrie, who carried the bill in the Senate, told his colleagues before the vote.

“We’re trying to tread the needle here to continue to allow passage, hunting, and fishing,” he said.

But Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said taking away the public trust doctrine means Georgians will not be guaranteed the right to swim or wade in the state’s rivers and streams, including the right to stand on a riverbank and cast a fishing line. Waterfront property owners also will be able to prohibit scientific research in the state’s waterways.

“It’s very nearly impossible to do these activities without touching the stream bed,” she said.

Parent said the Georgia Wildlife Federation and the University of Georgia’s River Basin Center sent letters opposing the bill.

Senate President Pro Tempore John Kennedy, R-Macon, said the Metro Atlanta Chamber and multiple agribusiness organizations expressed support for the measure.

Senators defeated two amendments introduced Tuesday night, including one by Parent that would have restored the public trust doctrine to the legislation, drawing a charge from Kennedy that she was trying to gut the bill.

A House study committee held several hearings on the issue around the state last October that pit the interests of recreational fishers, fishing guides, and paddlers against those of farmers and waterfront property owners.