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Commissioners vote to allow closing of fish hatcheries, reduced trout stocking

Bob Frye
| Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, 10:45 p.m.
(from left), Dennis Robl, of Murrysville, helps his daughter, Anna Robl, 3, reel in a trout she caught, as Joey Maxim nets it, during the annual Joey Gombosh Fishing Derby, held at Townsend Park in Murrysville on Saturday afternoon, April 15, 2017. Saturday was the opening day of trout season. 30 trout were tagged in the Remaley Pond at Townsend Park. A tagged fish earned the angler $20.
Kim Stepinsky | For the Tribune-Review
(from left), Dennis Robl, of Murrysville, helps his daughter, Anna Robl, 3, reel in a trout she caught, as Joey Maxim nets it, during the annual Joey Gombosh Fishing Derby, held at Townsend Park in Murrysville on Saturday afternoon, April 15, 2017. Saturday was the opening day of trout season. 30 trout were tagged in the Remaley Pond at Townsend Park. A tagged fish earned the angler $20.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission might stock nearly a quarter-million fewer trout going forward and scale back or eliminate altogether the stocking of some other species, to help balance its budget.

Or it might not.

Lawmakers apparently will decide which way the agency goes.

Meeting in Erie on Monday, and by a 6-4 vote, commissioners authorized executive director John Arway to cut $2 million from the 2018-19 budget.

Arway's plan to do that, as presented to the board, is to close the Oswayo and Union City hatcheries and the Van Dyke Research Station and scale back support of the cooperative trout nursery unit.

Shuttering Oswayo would save $935,000 but eliminate 240,000 of the 3.2 million adult trout stocked annually.

Closing Union City would save $444,000 but mean stocking 120,000 fewer walleye fingerlings. It also would eliminate the stocking of 70,000 channel catfish, 20,000 musky, and 3,000 northern pike fingerlings. The stocking of tiger muskies would be eliminated completely.

American shad stockings would cease, too, with the closing of Van Dyke.

In each of those cases, the cuts would start in 2019.

As for the cooperative trout program, it wouldn't be eliminated, but staff and services would be reduced.

The commission would save $1.779 million if it goes through with everything.

Commissioners said they'd vote to reverse course if lawmakers agree to either raise the cost of fishing licenses or give the agency authority to do so on its own before the start of the new fiscal year July 1.

“That's not in the motion, but I think that's pretty clear,” said commissioner Len Lichvar of Somerset County.

License prices haven't changed since 2004.

The commission has scaled back programs and reduced its staff from 432 to 358 employees to deal with that.

Yet thanks in large part to pension and health care costs, the agency faces tough times, said Brian Barner, deputy executive director for administration.

Its tentative 2018-19 budget calls for expenditures of $58.6 million. Yet revenues are estimated at only $48.1 million.

The commission has asked lawmakers for four years to increase fees, said commissioner Norm Gavlick of Luzerne County. They've not done so, he added.

“Faced with that, and with the numbers presented this morning, I think it's important for the board to discuss our options at this point,” Gavlick said in recommending Monday's action.

Some, though, took issue with the timing.

Board member Warren Elliott said that, after a lot of effort by the commission over the last four years, lawmakers are “on the precipice” of voting to raise fees.

“We're a few votes away,” he said.

Voting to close hatcheries now — without warning lawmakers — is a mistake, he added.

“I think that's the atomic solution. And it will go over like a lead balloon,” Elliott said.

That's how things went once before.

Commissioners voted to close two hatcheries — Oswayo and Bellefonte — in January of 2013, also for monetary reasons. The political backlash was severe enough that commissioners reversed course just two months later.

They agreed in March of that year to keep the hatcheries open through at least July of 2015, on the word of lawmakers who promised to seek funding for the agency.

Board president Rocco Ali of Armstrong County was part of both of those votes. He said Monday he'd like to avoid such a situation again and asked board members to delay authorizing any hatchery closings until January.

By then, he said, the fall legislative session will be over. Commissioners would know if lawmakers had approved a fee hike.

If they haven't, hatchery closing would be in order, he said. But, he added, there's no need to act before then.

“If we do this now we're shooting ourselves in the foot,” he said.

Other commissioners disagreed, however.

Commissioner Richard Lewis of Adams County said working with federal lawmakers taught him that consequences need to be spelled out to get action.

“My experience was, if you couldn't show legislators exactly what they were going to feel in punishment, or what their constituents would, you really didn't get far,” Lewis said.

Next year is an election year, he said. Lawmakers are typically “very reticent” to approve any kind of fee hikes when their jobs are on the line, he said.

So if they don't act this fall, Lewis said, the commission is likely looking at 2019 to get any new revenue.

Commissioner Ed Mascharka of Erie County said the agency could survive that long if need be by spending the money in its reserve account.

“We don't need to make these decisions today,” he said.

The hatchery closings are something the board has been talking about for a while, though. They've been presented with this idea at their last four meetings, Arway said.

Lawmakers are aware of that, he noted. They know, too, that the commission has the support of all the state's organized sportsmen's groups for a fee hike, he said.

Yet they haven't acted.

“It's all about the politics in the House (of Representatives),” he said.

One board member hinted the hatchery closings are about politics, too. Commissioner Bill Brock of Elk County noted the lakes and stream sections that would come off the trout stocking list if Oswayo is closed are clustered in a few areas of the state.

Those areas are also home to three or four lawmakers who have most vehemently opposed a license fee increase.

“That, to me, is a very targeted response. And it will yield a very negative reaction,” Brock said.

Gavlick, though, said lawmakers can make all of this go away if they'll just increase license fees and give the commission some much-needed revenue.

“The bottom line is, if lawmakers get done what they've been telling us they're going to get done for four years, none of this will happen,” Gavlick said.

Bob Frye is the everybodyadventures.com editor. Reach him at 412-216-0193 or bfrye@535mediallc.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.

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