Maybe the issue isn’t the issue.
Last month, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commissioners gave their executive director, John Arway, the authority to trim up to $2 million from the agency budget. He’s to make the cuts if state lawmakers don’t raise the cost of fishing licenses or otherwise provide the agency additional revenue by July 1.
Just what might fall to the axe isn’t set in stone.
But the plan floated so far includes shutting down the Oswayo trout hatchery, eliminating 240,000 adult trout. In addition, production of several warmwater species would be scaled back, too.
That possibility has generated a lot of talk.
Stocked trout are popular with anglers. But how many should the Fish and Boat Commission stock?
Photo: PA Fish and Boat Commission.
Perhaps it misses the bigger point, though.
Commissioner Eric Hussar of Union County said the real issue isn’t the fate of one hatchery. It’s what to do with 13.
That’s how many the commission has. Whether it needs them all to satisfy fewer fishermen who get on the water less often is the question, Hussar said.
“Our anglers are changing. Participation in fishing is changing,” Hussar said. “The trends, if they continue five, 10, 20 years, paint a different future in terms of supply and demand and costs and benefits than what we’ve seen in the past.”
For decades, Arway said, the commission’s trout hatcheries have had one goal: produce the maximum amount of fish possible. That’s remained the case even as interest in fishing has declined.
Each year from 1977 through 1995, the commission sold more than one million licenses. Sales peaked in 1990 at just less than 1.2 million.
By comparison, sales averaged about 847,000 a year over the five years prior to this one.
Yet the commission hasn’t adjusted, Arway said.
“You continue to produce more product for fewer people. It doesn’t make much sense,” he added.
An independent look at the commission agrees.
Master’s degree candidates in Penn State University’s college of agricultural sciences did a business analysis of the commission. It found the agency does things backwards.
For example, in manufacturing, the report said, businesses determine demand for a product, then build to meet it. That production varies over time as the market dictates.
“Typically, marketing and sales professionals discuss goals before production is scheduled, then manufacturing determines production amounts and executes the plans,” it reads.
The commission, though, produces fish, decides where to put them, and only then, “on the back end,” tries to generate demand.
It seems like that should change, the report said. While revenues are flattening and expenses are rising, “lowering fish production appears to be a necessary step” to balance budgets, it reads.
“You have to ask, how many fish do you really need and how many can you afford?” added Judd Michael, a professor of ecosystem science and management who oversaw development of the analysis.
If production is cut, the business plan makes two recommendations.
The first is to concentrate stockings and then market those hot spots to “generate demand at select locations prior to stocking,” it reads.
The second is to consider how fish are used these days.
Angler behavior has changed, the report notes. More and more fishermen practice catch and release.
“It may be the case that the catch and release rates have increased sufficiently that the agency does not have to stock as many fish since anglers are effectively ‘stocking’ the streams with fish released after a catch. If this is true than any agency reductions in trout stocking levels would be offset by anglers who are releasing fish for others to catch,” the report reads.
All that analysis has value, Arway said.
“This shouldn’t fall on deaf ears,” he said.
Expense is the reason why.
Operating hatcheries costs the agency about $13 million a year, he said. That’s about one-quarter of the agency’s total budget.
Most of that money – upwards of $10 million – is gobbled up by trout production.
Still, no changes to hatcheries or stocking are imminent, Arway said.
”We’re not going to do too many new things until we get our financial situation stabilized,” he said.
But changes may not be all that far off either.
Steve Kralik, director of outreach, education and marketing for the commission, said the agency has reached out to Southwick Associates. It’s a research firm specializing in the outdoor industry.
At some point, Kralik said, the commission may ask that firm to help it determine — based on public input — how many fish its customers expect or demand.
It’s been a “long, long time” since the commission did any such analysis of its hatchery program, Arway said. So such research could be beneficial, he added.
Hussar, a business owner himself, agreed.
The commission has had hatcheries for most of its 151 years. He hopes it will for the next 151, he said.
But, he added, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t look at operations.
“You’re certainly not going to make stuff if it’s not going to sell,” Hussar said. “So this is an analysis that should be done.
A look at what might be?
Any decision to close hatcheries and stock fewer fish will be controversial.
The Penn State authors of a business analysis of the Fish and Boat Commission admit as much.
“Hatchery closings will impact all stakeholders differently,” they wrote. “This is a politically charged topic that requires buy-in from anglers, sportsman interest groups, agency staff, commissioners and state politicians.”
Consider what’s going on in the legislature right now.
When the commission said it might close Oswayo fish hatchery, it simultaneously listed the waters to be removed from the stocking list. They were concentrated in three areas.
Those, not coincidentally, are in the districts of state lawmakers who have blocked efforts to increase license fees.
One is fighting back.
State Rep. Martin Causer is a Potter County Republican whose district includes the Oswayo hatchery. He said in a memo he’ll introduce a resolution to merge the Fish and Boat Commission with the Game Commission. Such a move would save $5 million annually, he said.
In the meantime, another lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Bryan Barbin of Cambria County, is proposing a partial merger. His bill would combine the law enforcement and administrative bureaus of the two commissions.
One executive director – a director of fish and wildlife services – would oversee both commissions.
The scariest part of that for some in the outdoor community is the requirement the director be a political appointee. Under Barbin’s bill, he or she would be nominated by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate.