The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission has two serious problems that they seem to be unwilling or unable to address – disappearing stocked trout and how much their hatchery system actually costs license buyers. Raising stocked trout is a big business for the PFBC. They spend millions of dollars to raise and stock adult hatchery trout. This year, approximately 3.2 million will be stocked in approved trout waters across the state (most have already been released).
Last year, the cost was a reported $2.14 per fish to raise these millions of trout. Stocking is supported by hatchery infrastructure, fish food, stocking trucks, effluent treatment, personnel wages and benefits, gasoline to distribute the fish and conservation officers' time to protect the trout between stocking time and the opening day. I suspect that, when everything is truthfully figured in, the cost for each fish raised and delivered to opening day anglers is astronomical.
We are told that the Commission is working on an egg-to-creel cost figure for stocked trout. It will be very interesting to see how that turns out. I hope that it includes the cost for all of the "disappearing trout" –those eaten by herons, mink and other predators, as well as the fish that just seem to vanish into thin air.
How many trout disappear? It varies. In one study on Centre County's Sinking Creek, 100 tagged trout were stocked in each of two stream sections on March 2, 2009. On March 17, just 15 days later, only 51 tagged trout in section 1 were electro-shocked, and 57 in section 2. The PFBC deemed the loss acceptable, but wait – we were still one month away from the trout opener.
PSU grad student Shawn Rummel and his electro-shocking crew returned on March 31, and again on April 13. Just five days before the opening day, only 26 tagged trout remained in section 1 and 23 in section 2. Similar results were found by Rummel in 2007 and 2008.
Rummel also organized an opening morning creel survey on both sections of Sinking Creek. Anglers caught fewer than 10 tagged trout on section 1 and only one on section 2 ($2.14 X 100 = $214.00 to produce one stocked trout for a lucky angler on the opening morning). Despite these documented losses, to the best of my knowledge, the PFBC stocked trout in Sinking Creek at the same time – early March – in both 2010 and 2011.
Within the PFBC, there is what I would call a "hatchery culture" that operates under the following pretense: stock more trout & sell more licenses, stock fewer trout & license sales drop. Although this makes sense on the surface, facts do not support the logic. Ignoring rare slight upward movements, fishing license and trout stamp sales have generally been in a steady decline since 1990.
In 2001, the PFBC Big Spring Hatchery was closed because of the pollution that it caused. The agency issued at least five news releases telling everyone that they were stocking about 25 percent fewer trout that year. License and trout stamp sales dropped – but not 25, 20, or even 10 percent. In fact, they dropped only about as much as they had in the previous years, during which many more trout had been stocked. The hatchery closing could have been interpreted as a good business decision – save a million dollars in trout stocking and lose a few thousand in license sales.
I'm not asking for all hatcheries to be closed tomorrow. They serve a useful function and I fish for those trout, too. What we need is a long-term plan with vision – one that recognizes the true cost of trout stocking and weighs that against the documented benefits. In a world of rising costs and dwindling licenses buyers, wouldn't it make sense to gradually taper off fish production and use the expensive stocked trout where they reap the highest benefit?