Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission is marking its 150th anniversary

I think it’s ironic that one of the problems the Pennsylvania Fish Commission was created to fix still exists – the shad run in the Susquehanna remains nearly nonexistent.

But there was another pressing need back then. The origins of the commission date to 1866, when a convention was held in Harrisburg to investigate water pollution being caused by the wholesale logging of Pennsylvania's forests and the impacts caused by sedimentation of mountain lakes and streams.

That discussion resulted in Gov. Andrew Curtin signing into law an act passed by the Legislature in 1866 that named James Worrall Pennsylvania's first commissioner of fisheries. Then In 1925 an act established the Board of Fish Commissioners. Decades later, in 1949, an act established the Pennsylvania Fish Commission as an agency.

Over the past 150 years the commission has evolved from a one-man operation funded solely by the general fund to an agency with a complement of 432 staff funded by anglers and boaters through license and registration fees and federal excise taxes on fishing and boating equipment.

At a recent event at the State Museum in Harrisburg commemorating the agency’s anniversary, Executive Director John Arway stressed the commission’s contribution to the health of the state’s woods and waters.

Our 86,000 miles of streams, nearly 4,000 lakes and reservoirs, over 404,000 acres of wetlands and 63 miles of Lake Erie shoreline are still home to more than 25,000 species of plants and animals,” he said.

“These facts demonstrate the enormity and complexity of the challenges that face the commission as we strive to fulfill our legislative and Constitutional duties to protect, conserve and enhance our commonwealth’s aquatic resources.”

As for restoring the Susquehanna’s shad run, the commission is still involved in that fight.

In conjunction with federal officials, the Fish & Boat Commission is still negotiating with utility company Excelon to improve fish passage facilities at its 94-foot-high Conowingo Dam across the river. Last we heard, Excelon was appealing a call from the U.S. U.S. Department of the Interior for the construction of a state-of-the art elevator capable of moving four times as many fish as the current 25-year-old fish lift.

Exelon contended the upgrades would cost $56 million and are unlikely to achieve fish-passage goals. It proposed instead to upgrade and improve its existing lift, and revive a program to trap shad and truck them around Conowingo and the three dams upstream of it.

None of that makes one optimistic about the future of the Susquehanna’s shad run, but the commission seems to have mostly succeeded in its other endeavors.


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