The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is considering doing the same thing with trout that the Pennsylvania Game Commission did with pheasants: Cut back.
During the PFBC’s quarterly meeting on Sept. 26, the board voted to reduce spending by $2 million in fiscal year 2018-19 if the legislature doesn’t grant a license fee increase.
Specifically, that $2 million reduction would be derived from closing two warmwater hatcheries and one trout hatchery (similar to a move made by the PGC to close two pheasant farms). The move would result in a 7.5-percent reduction in the number of trout stocked every year, and the production of warmwater species such as American shad, walleye, musky, northern pike and channel catfish would also be scaled back.
As far as trout, a 7.5-percent reduction means 240,000 fewer fish will be stocked, and the agency has already identified 61 streams and four lakes that would be taken off the stocking list. While none of those waterways are in Luzerne County, there are 11 in Carbon County.
The Fish and Boat Commission has gone without a fishing license fee increase since 2005. It’s up to the state legislature to pass a fee hike and, while they have yet to do so, the Senate did pass a bill that would give the PFBC the authority to raise the cost of a fishing license.
The bill (Senate Bill 30) has stalled in the House Game and Fisheries Committee, however, and it appears the PFBC is being pushed to its financial limit while the agency waits for action.
So what’s the hold up?
I asked state Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Nanticoke, who is a member of the Game and Fisheries Committee.
He questioned if the $2 million in cuts is truly motivated by economics considering the PFBC has built up a $60 million reserve fund.
“When you have $60 million in the bank and this decision only saves $2 million, it doesn’t make sense to me,” Mullery said. “Why make a decision to take trout away when you have money in the bank?”
Mullery said it appears the PFBC’s plan is motivated by politics more than economics as many of the waterways where trout stockings are to be cut match up with districts of legislators who haven’t been in favor of a license fee increase.
“I hope that’s not true,” he said. “Politics shouldn’t impact what waters get stocked.”
Lastly, Mullery said any legislation granting a license fee increase for the Fish and Boat Commission is tied to the passage of similar legislation for the PGC.
John Arway, executive director of the PFBC, said the list of waters that would be cut from the trout stocking program was derived through a number of factors. Under the cuts, the Oswayo Fish Culture Station, which raises trout, would be closed. The hatchery is located in Potter County and many of the streams on the list to be removed from stocking would’ve been served by Oswayo.
There’s also a biological factor, Arway said, considering some of the streams have healthy populations of wild trout so a fishery would still exist without stocking.
And he also said there was a political reason behind the list.
“We tried not to punish legislators and Senators that have supported us,” Arway said, adding the agency tried to spare streams in the districts of those individuals.
Were some of the streams to be closed to stocking in areas of legislators who oppose a license fee increase?
“It’s tough to tell who opposes and who doesn’t because we can’t get the bill up for discussion and a vote,” Arway said.
So what’s the answer to avoid the cuts while waiting for a license fee increase?
“The time has come for the Fish and Boat Commission to tap into that $60 million (reserve fund),” Mullery said.
Arway said the agency already has, to a degree, and will have to do so again even if the cuts are made to save $2 million. License sales are down 5 percent this year, he said, resulting in $1 million in lost revenue. Health care and pension costs are expected to rise by 6.2 percent, and when combined with declining license sales, it makes for a $7.2 million deficit. The $2 million in savings in 2018-19 leaves over $5 million that would need to be covered by the reserve fund.
To make matters even worse, if the House continues not to act on SB30, Arway said another $1 million in expenditures will need to be trimmed in fiscal years 2019-20 and 2020-21. Among the cuts would be another trout hatchery, though Arway declined to say which one.
“It’s simple. We either get additional revenue or cut operations. We’re at that point,” Arway said. “Senate Bill 30 was supported by the state Senate. The House right now is the challenge.”
And while Arway makes a strong point that dipping into the reserve fund is a dangerous proposition and just a short-term fix, it might be the only way to make the challenge of staying in business feasible.
To not use the reserve fund might backfire for the PFBC. The agency is funded predominantly by fishing license sales. Most anglers buy a license to fish for trout. If there are less trout and fewer stocked waters, some anglers will have fewer reasons to buy a license and contribute to the PFBC’s revenue stream.
And that $2 million in savings might end up being pretty costly in the end.
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky