It was a full court press, one designed to buy time and change minds.
Anglers will have to wait to see if it worked.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission recently held a meeting of its hatchery and fisheries committees in Harrisburg.
The move was unusual. Usually, those groups meet only once every quarter. Additional meetings, like this one, are very rare.
What’s more, this one was attended by a dozen or so employees of the agency’s hatchery staff.
That was notable because up for discussion was the looming closure of the commission’s Oswayo trout hatchery, Union City warmwater hatchery and Van Dyke research station, as well as a gutting of the cooperative nursery program.
The commission board voted 6-4 last September to proceed with those closures to trim $2 million from its budget. That’s necessary, they explained, because fishing licenses fees haven’t increased since 2005. Add that to declining license sales and the commission is now spending more annually than it’s making.
State lawmakers, some anglers and even some commissioners have been trying to get the agency to abandon its plan – at least temporarily — ever since, though.
This latest committee meeting was more of the same.
Commission Bill Brock of Elk County said the reaction to the proposed closures among state lawmakers has been harsh. And they’re the only ones with the authority to raise fees.
But he’s been told they might after Jan. 1 – when elections are over — though only if all commission facilities remain open. Otherwise, he said, “it’s war.”
“As a business, we may want to assess that risk,” Brock said.
Commission executive director John Arway said he’s done just that. But the agency is running out of time and money.
Five years ago, he said, the board voted to close two hatcheries. Lawmakers objected then, and promised to come up with more revenue if the commission would rescind that vote.
It did. But lawmakers failed to come through, Arway said.
The commission trimmed staff and budgets in every bureau by 20 to 30 percent to account for that. Hatcheries are the last place left to cut, he said.
The proposed cuts would eliminate about 20 jobs, 11 of them full time.
Some aren’t convinced the commission is so broke it needs to act, though.
Commissioner Ed Mascharka of Erie County said lawmakers told him “specifically, point blank” recently that the commission should use its $50 million reserve fund to keep all hatcheries open. Then, in January, lawmakers can re-start efforts to increase license fees.
That “offer, that promise” is something all commissioners should be made aware of and talk about before any cuts begin, Mascharka said.
“We should see … is there a way to put some things on hold, for right this minute, to buy us a little better political camaraderie, if that’s what you want to call it, moving forward into January,” Mascharka said.
Arway is doubtful. He talked to those same lawmakers.
“There wasn’t an offer. There wasn’t a promise,” Arway said.
Rather, he added, all that was offered was a “comment” that lawmakers would be open to discussing license fee legislation next year.
Even then, Arway said, lawmakers said they don’t want to raise fishing license fees without doing the same for hunting license fees. They haven’t changed since 1999.
And they won’t be tackling them until after an audit of the Game Commission is completed sometime in 2019.
“There’s a lot of ifs in that discussion,” Arway said.
The commission recently floated another idea that he hopes might offer relief, though.
Each year, it collects between $3.5 and $5 million in taxes on boat sales. It doesn’t get to keep any of that, except for about $45,000 in handling fees.
The rest goes to the state’s general fund.
Arway asked lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf if the commission could keep that money this year – and this year alone – as a “stop gap measure” to prevent any hatchery closures. All seem amenable to the idea, Arway said.
“So that’s the track we’re on right now in terms of the political landscape,” Arway said.
A state budget is due by June 30. He hopes to have an answer by then.
Brock suggested the commission back away from hatchery closings now – while that idea gets debated – as a show of good faith.
“Personally, I think, to increase our odds of that happening, a commitment for one more year would probably go a long way,” he said.
But commissioner Len Lichvar of Somerset County likewise remains skeptical. He was on the board when it backed away from a decision to close hatcheries five years ago. He heard the promises lawmakers made then, and subsequently broke each year for the next five, he said.
He’s not sure anything’s changed.
“I never saw the leopard change its spots,” Lichvar said.
The full commission board is scheduled to meet again on July 9 and 10. No action to close hatcheries is being taken before then, Arway said. Even at that, none would totally close before October or November.
So there’s time for lawmakers to help the agency, Arway said. He’s hopeful they will.
But he wants to be ready in case they don’t.
“These aren’t easy decisions, but they’re necessary decisions. When it comes to the point your revenues are less than expenses, you have to make these decisions,” Arway said.
Smaller trout but still as many trout
If the Fish and Boat Commission closes several hatcheries, some fish will just be lost.
Closing Union City, for example, will likely put an end to the tiger musky stocking program, while closing Van Dyke will mean no more shad. No other facilities can accommodate them, officials said.
Closing Oswayo will cost the commission 240,000 adult trout. That’s 7.5 percent of the total 3.2 million released annually.
But there may be a way to make that up: smaller trout.
The state Department of Environmental Protection regulates commission hatcheries based on the total pounds of fish they produce. They can raise a lot of small ones or a few big ones, so long as they don’t exceed the weight limit.
So, if Oswayo has to close, commissioner Bill Brock of Elk County suggested going to smaller fish to maintain numbers.
The average trout – at 10.5 inches now — would be 0.5 inches shorter and 10 percent lighter in that scenario, said Tom Cochran, manager of southern trout hatcheries.
That’s virtually imperceptible, so it might be a worthwhile move, said commissioner Ed Mascharka of Erie County.
But there’s a problem.
“The big concern really is, logistically anyway, the distribution of those fish,” Cochran said.
Right now, it takes 110 to 120 truck trips to stock the fish coming out of Oswayo. Absorbing those could be troublesome, especially if all streams and lakes on the stocking list now remain, because the other hatcheries are spread out so far.
Cochran isn’t sure the commission could stock every water by opening day.
“And we never want to have anglers go to a stream on opening day of trout season and us not have the fish there,” Cochran said.
The board will decide whether to stock smaller fish at its July meeting.