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Lawmakers, commission in battle over fish license fees

| Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, 6:45 p.m.

This might be a first.

State lawmakers are trying to give money — yours, not theirs — to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, but the agency doesn't want it.

The commission announced in January that it was closing two trout hatcheries next year to account for $9 million in budget cuts needed by 2017. That will mean 750,000 fewer fish stocked.

The decision caught lawmakers by surprise, and they're not happy about it.

One, Centre County Republican Sen. Jake Corman, was so angry he said it may be time to think about whether the agency should become a division of the Game Commission or Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

“Clearly, if they can't survive on their own, they may need to be part of another entity,” he said.

State Rep. Gary Haluska, a Cambria County Democrat, isn't going that far. But he did say the commission should ask for an increase in the cost of fishing licenses and trout stamps if that's what it takes to churn out trout for the 70 percent of anglers who pursue them.

“I think it's due,” Haluska said. “How many companies can go eight years without raising the price it charges for its goods and services? I think anglers would understand that.”

He said he offered to sponsor that legislation, but was told the commission isn't interested.

There's good reason for that, said executive director John Arway. History shows that every time the commission raises fees, it loses anglers who never come back, he said.

The commission had 1.2 million license buyers at its peak in 1990. It lost fishermen when the trout stamp was created in 1991, lost more when the cost of a fishing license went up by $4.25 in 1996 and lost more when license fees last went up by $4.75 in 2005.

The state has just 800,000 license-buying fishermen now.

“(Haluska) can't get me to agree to a license fee increase because we lose 8 to 10 percent of our anglers as soon as we do that. I don't want to lose 80,000 anglers,” Arway said. “We need to fix our problems, but the fix is not raising fishing license fees.”

Arway told lawmakers he won't oppose a fee increase, but he won't support it either, not unless his board tells him to. It hasn't. Commission president Steve Ketterer said the agency has been working to figure out what a license fee increase might look like and how much revenue it might raise. Arway will present that information during his annual report to the House of Representatives game and fisheries committee Tuesday.

But commissioners want to see a long-term revenue stream developed, Ketterer said.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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