PF&BC to expand its co-op nursery system

It’s getting close to crunch time for the cooperative nurseries around the state.

July 15 is the date when nurseries – which raise about one million adult trout, or 25 percent of all the fish stocked in Pennsylvania for the Fish & Boat Commission in a year’s time – are to submit their annual reports to the agency’s nursery division.

If history holds true, more than a few will miss the deadline, in some cases by many months.

“We had a great deal of difficulty last year, again, and ran into January trying to get all of the reports,” Early Myers, leader of the commission’s nursery unit, told cooperating clubs in a letter on Jan. 24 of this year.

“To this date I have not been able to submit my annual report to my supervisor. It is imperative that more than one individual is trained in completing this form. I realize that unforeseen circumstances often occur, and individuals have difficulty in completing the form on time, but that is when other members of the club have to come to the rescue.”

Such rescues aren’t happening often enough, but the cooperative nursery program is so important that Fish & Boat Commissioners are trying to expand it anyway.

Several board members – lead by Glade Squires, of Chester County, and Ed Mascharka, of Erie – recently served on a task force charged with finding ways to better support and expand the nursery program.

Cooperating clubs receive fingerling trout from the commission late each summer. They raise them at their own expense – feeding the fish, maintaining hatcheries, dealing with disease and filling out all of the required paperwork – then stock them in waters open to public fishing.

Many of the fish go into waters for general angling; others are used to support special fishing days for children, veterans, the disabled and others.

“They do a lot of good,” Mascharka said.

There are roughly 160 cooperative nurseries spread across the state. Most are sportsmen’s clubs, though others are eligible. Commission guidelines say any group with established bylaws, a charter or affiliation can participate.

That includes school groups.

All have to meet certain guidelines. Their prospective facilities have to be evaluated for a year before the first load of fish ever arrives, to make sure it consistently meets standards for water quality standards. After a nursery joins the program, volunteers must complete annual reviews to show where their fish went.

The problem with many existing nurseries is that they’re run by a tiny volunteer staff – sometimes as few as one or two volunteers in a particular club – made up of usually older sportsmen, said Andy Shiels, deputy executive director of the commission.

To aid them, some of the task force’s recommendations are to create an aquaculture education program to help nurseries, build a recruitment program to help clubs find volunteers, revitalize nurseries that have gone dormant, and tweak the grant program that offers nurseries money.

The grant program – which can provide money for infrastructure improvements, construction and more – is especially important, as it’s underutilized, said Commissioner Bill Sabatose, of Elk County.

“They all need money. But the way [the grant program is] set up, it’s not working,” he said.

“It’s working. It could work better,” Shiels added.

The task force’s main goal is to increase the number of cooperative nurseries out there, though. It’s set a goal of growing the program by 6 percent per year.

That’s ambitious in that it would double the size of the program in roughly 10 years, said Commissioner Bill Worobec, of Lycoming County.

Mascharka, though, said the task force initially considered an even more bold growth plan, but settled on this as a compromise.

The board may look particularly to the 17 counties across the state – from Allegheny and Beaver in the far west to Pike and Wyoming in the northeast – that don’t have any nurseries for help, said Squires.

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