Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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PA: PF&BC to cut costs of trout

Selinsgrove, Pa. – Tension and controversy aren’t hallmarks of
most Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission meetings.

This one was an exception.

The agency’s fisheries committee – or at least two members of it –
met at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove on Aug. 31 to hear a
variety of staff reports. One of those centered around ways to trim
costs at commission hatcheries.

It’s a report that was a long time in the making.

The Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, which audits the
agency every three years, recommended in 2007 that the commission
explore ways to contain costs, given that hatcheries account for 39
percent of all spending annually. A follow-up audit in 2010 noted
the review was still not done.

In Selinsgrove, the report – put together by people representing
various bureaus within the commission – saw the light of day. And
it outlines some potentially hard, controversial changes.

Brian Wisner, chief of the commission’s Division of Fish
Production, said one way the commission could save money would be
by shrinking the size of the average adult stocked trout.

He said that reducing the size of the average trout from 11 to 10
inches would save $270,000 in fish feed costs each year. Shrinking
the fish to 9.5 inches would save $480,000, he added.

Another option would be to continue raising brown and rainbow trout
to 11 inches, but shrink the typical brook trout – usually stocked
in smaller headwater streams anyway – to 9.5 inches, said Dave
Miko, chief of the commission’s Division of Fisheries Management.
That would save $88,000.

“We might be able to tweak things by species,” Miko said.

Both options represent a reversal. The commission just switched to
raising fewer but larger trout in 2007 in an attempt to better
satisfy anglers. All indications are that the change has proven
popular, said Leroy Young, director of the commission’s Bureau of
Fisheries.

Going back to smaller fish might be acceptable to anglers, but only
if they get more of them, said Commissioner Bill Sabatose of Elk
County.

“I would probably be interested in raising more fish if we went to
a smaller size, which we could do,” Sabatose said. “If the fish
were an inch shorter but we stocked more of them, I think anglers
might be OK with that.”

No one at the meeting addressed whether that would still allow the
agency to save money, however.

Another possibility Wisner outlined calls for moving to stocking
trout year-round, rather than in a short window of time like the
pre- and in-season time frame. That “would help control costs at
our hatcheries tremendously,” Wisner said.

It’s unlikely the commission’s own area fisheries managers would
like that, he said. Most would likely request their fish in spring
anyway, he admitted.

Anglers would hate it, too, Sabatose said.

“Year-round, that’s not going to work. Not for trout,” Sabatose
said.

The commission could also save money by eliminating the fall trout
stocking program and the early season stocked trout waters programs
and by removing some streams that get very low angler use from the
stocking list, Wisner added.

All would be controversial, though, he said.

“We’re going to need public acceptance and buy-in with whatever we
go with here,” Wisner said.

There are other options, too. Wisner said the commission could
consolidate hatcheries – though only if its first determined
exactly how many trout and warmwater/coolwater species it needed in
a year’s time, and whether they had to be raised here or could be
acquired via trades or purchase.

That would require a change, Wisner added. Right now, the
hatcheries determine how many fish of all species they can raise in
a year, then give that figure to fisheries managers, who figure out
where to put them.

Things should work the opposite way, Wisner said, with managers
determining how many fish they need, then directing the hatchery to
meet that.

“There needs to be a paradigm shift,” Wisner said.

He went on to outline a few other options for saving and making
money.

The commission could cut costs by raising more fingerling trout,
known as put-grow-take fish, at the expense of adults, and reducing
overtime among hatchery employees. It might put netting over
hatchery raceways and ponds to reduce losses to bird predation,
too.

At the same time, the commission might make $130,000 a year by
selling advertising on its stocking trucks and an average of
$36,000 a year by selling timber on hatchery properties, he
said.

Some have even suggested the commission could make $15,000 to
$20,000 annually by installing bubble gum-type machines at its
hatcheries where visitors could buy handfuls of feed for the fish,
he said.

The mention of some of those ideas – like the netting – drew the
ire of Commissioner Bill Worobec, of Lycoming County, though.

The commission needs to be more efficient, he said. It’s budget
only figures to get tighter. For that reason, commissioners three
years ago directed commission staff to make spending money on
preventative maintenance, like netting, an annual priority, he
said.

He said he was “disturbed” to find out the agency is still just
talking about those kinds of things.

“Some of the issues we’re looking at here are ones that any other
business would be looking at on a yearly basis,” he said. “We told
you we wanted this three years ago. Why are we just getting to it
now?”

He also expressed frustration with Wisner’s inability to say just
how long it would take to implement any cost-saving measures.
Worobec several times tried to pin down a schedule, with no
success.

“I’m trying to figure out when we’re going to get anything done,”
he said. “I think I’m hearing two years, but I’m not sure.”

Wisner admitted that any changes – such as consolidating hatcheries
— will likely be years in the making.

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