Sunday, April 6, 2014

Trout Stocking Could See Big Changes In Pennsylvania

By Bob Frye, Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Patrick Robinson, president of the Sandy Bottom
Sportsman's Club in Seward, holds prize-winning
tag numbers 3743 and 3744 that were placed on two
of the several hundred brown and rainbow trout stocked
by the club in the nearby Conemaugh River
Wednesday morning. Each tagged fish is worth
$50 to a lucky fisherman.
Dwight Yingling is a happy man these days.
Owner of North Park Sports Shop in Allison Park, he's seen his business take off over the last two-plus years, ever since North Park Lake was dredged and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission once again began stocking it with trout. Last year was his most profitable ever.
That's not all about fish. Yingling runs a booming bike rental and repair business out of the shop, too, so a share of his customers are more likely to be wearing bicycle shorts than fishing vests.
But there's no denying the power of stocked trout either.
“Oh yeah, that's a big deal. Trout are a huge thing around here,” Yingling said. “The bass fishing in the lake is pretty good and is only going to get better. But bass fishing, that's something that just kind of goes on all summer long. There are never a lot of guys standing in line to fish for bass like there is for trout. Those trout produce a lot of business.”
He's expecting big things again this year, when trout season opens at 8 a.m. Saturday. An estimated 600,000 fishermen are expected on the water.
None of that is necessarily new.
The Fish and Boat Commission has been stocking trout for more than a century, with its oldest hatcheries dating to at least 1874, a time when fish were delivered to streams in milk cans aboard horse-drawn buggies and later trains. The commission even had its own railroad car, the Susquehanna, for almost two decades, using it to carry fish around the state and to a couple of World's Fairs.
The Susquehanna has passed into history, but the state still ranks in the top 10, if not the top five, nationally in how many trout it produces, stocking 3.2 million adult-sized fish each year, along with several million “fingerlings,” said southern hatcheries manager Tom Cochran.
But tough times lie ahead, the kind that might require a change in how the state funds fish and wildlife management.

The model

Traditionally, fish and wildlife across America has been supported on the sportsmen's dollar. Under the “North American Model” of conservation, fish and wildlife belong to all of the people. Yet state fish and wildlife agencies get 80 percent or more of their funding through sales of licenses purchased by hunters, trappers and anglers, and through federal excise taxes paid on sporting equipment like firearms, fishing rods and the like, said Ron Regan, executive director of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
It's a system that's worked remarkably well, he said.
Once decimated populations of species like white-tailed deer, brook trout and turkeys have been restored, land and habitat has been conserved and revitalized, and the entire public has benefitted, he said.
“It's been a hugely successful model, the greatest story never told,” Regan said.
But it's also facing challenges. The number of hunters and anglers has declined over time, just as fish and wildlife agencies have been increasingly tasked with managing “non-game” species, including everything from salamanders to peregrine falcons. Add in costs associated with health care, infrastructure like hatcheries more than a century old and more, and budgets have been stretched thin, Regan said.
“The system does still work,” he said. “But the reality is, if you've got fewer hunters or fewer anglers and fewer licenses being bought and less money coming in, hard choices will have to be made.”

Cutbacks possible

The Fish and Boat Commission has its troubles.
The agency needs to come up with $9.2 million by 2016, and every year thereafter, to account for rising costs, most of them state-mandated pension contributions it did not negotiate but must live with, said executive director John Arway.
To address that looming shortfall, the agency's board last January announced plans to close two trout hatcheries, one at Oswayo in Potter County and Bellefonte in Centre County. That would save $2 million annually, but at a cost of 750,000 trout – about 22 percent of the total stocked each year -- starting in 2015.
It's since backtracked but only partly. Under intense political pressure, the board agreed to delay the closures until July 2016 while it looked for more money.
If none is found, a reduction in stocking of that magnitude would be a huge hit in a state where trout are king.
Figures from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated recreation show that trout account for more than 4.5 millions days of fishing in Pennsylvania each year. No other species comes close to generating that much activity.
“I strongly believe the mission of the commission is to provide opportunities to anglers. To close those two hatcheries would be devastating,” state Rep. Martin Causer of Potter County, chairman of the House game and fisheries committee, said at a recent hearing at the Capital.
Rep. Marc Gergely of White Oak agreed, saying requests for the commission's trout stocking list are among the most common he receives in his office annually.
“We're a trout state. We want put-and-take trout fisheries,” he said.
Providing them costs money, though, and the commission needs help finding it, said executive director John Arway.
“I'm hopeful the legislature realizes that, if we're going to continue to stock 3.2 million trout and sustain the programs the public expects, they're going to have to come up with some additional funding,” Arway said.

License fees vs. sales tax

In decades past, whenever the commission needed money, lawmakers raised fishing license fees. They offered to do the same thing again more than a year ago.
The commission wants no parts of it.
The problem, Arway said, is that whenever license fees go up, some fishermen quit the sport. Some come back in time, but not all do. The result is a short-term bump in revenue that's more than offset by a long-term decline in customers.
Something else is needed, he said. He's been pushing two ideas: a new tax on water use paid by corporations, which the commission would get a share of, and a plan to re-allocate a portion of existing state sales taxes to conservation.
The former idea is unheard of in the Northeast, and has run into political opposition. The latter idea has worked in other places, though.
Since 1976 the state of Missouri has allocated one-eighth of 1 percent of all state sales taxes collected to its Department of Conservation. That's just eight cents of every $10 in taxes collected, but it's been a windfall for conservation, said department spokesman Joe Jarek.
In fiscal year 2012-13, for example, the department earned about $32 million through hunting, fishing and trapping license sales. But it got $102.5 million in sales tax revenues. That's by far the department's largest source of income, Jarek said.
“What's nice is, it's without sunset. It's just ongoing. We don't have to go back before the legislature every five, seven, 10 years to ask for more money in the form of license increases,” Jarek said. “We can essentially use it anywhere conservation related.”
Arkansas has something similar. Since 1997 it's devoted one-eighth of 1 percent of its sales tax revenue to conservation, split several ways. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission gets 45 percent of the money, as does Arkansas State Parks. The Department of Arkansas Heritage, a history agency, gets 9 percent, while Keep Arkansas Beautiful gets 1 percent.
The Fish and Game Commission's share amounts to a much-needed $25 million annually.
“It's been a godsend,” said spokesman Keith Stephens. “We were to the point where we couldn't grow. We couldn't do some of the things the public was asking us to do. We just didn't have the resources.”
A side benefit of the program, in addition to providing additional revenue, is that it lets all state residents -- sportsmen or not – have a say in fish and wildlife.
“You don't have to be a bass fisherman, for example, to be involved with conservation in Arkansas,” Stephens said.
In Virginia, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries gets one-half of 1 percent of sales tax collected on specific items, like tents and binoculars. That brings in as much as $7 million annually, said spokesman Lee Walker.
The money is earmarked for spending on non-game species such as songbirds. That frees up license revenues to take care of the species hunters and anglers generally care most about, while – as in Arkansas – tapping into a “non-typical customer base,” Walker said.

Double-edge sword

Taking tax money from the general public like that worries some people, though.
Traditionally, fish and wildlife agencies – charged with managing all species for all of the people -- have been seen as catering to sportsmen above all others because they were buying the licenses and paying the bills. Across the country, there's always been a level of fear in the sporting community that that might cease to be the case if money comes in from other sources, Regan said.
Things are no different in Pennsylvania.
“In our minds, we think that you could justify some level of general fund support for the Game and Fish and Boat commissions, without any accompanying additional legislative oversight,” said Lowell Graybill of Elizabethtown, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs. “But we know very well that when you open up that can of worms, it's anybody's guess how things will quite end up.
“It's a conundrum. It's a concept that really raises some concerns.”
Causer did nothing to ease those fears when Arway pitched the idea of sharing sales tax money at a meeting of the House game and fisheries committee.
“The more you receive general fund revenues, the more it's going to change the agency,” Causer said. “Be careful what you wish for. There may be some oversight that comes with that.”

The future

In Missouri and Arkansas, voters directly decided to share tax revenues with their wildlife agencies via referendum. That can't happen here.
Pennsylvania has no statewide referendum procedure, said Department of State spokesman Ron Ruman. A change in how taxes are allocated would have to come through the legislature.
Gergely said he's going to try and foster those discussions and get a percentage of existing sales taxes directed back to the Game and Fish and Boat commissions. That's only fair, he said. Statistics from the Fish and Wildlife Service show that hunting and fishing generate billions in economic activity across the Commonwealth, benefitting everyone from gas station and restaurant owners to hotels and sporting goods stores.
“We have to start talking about redirecting a few of those dollars to support the agencies that do the work,” Gergely said. “We have to get that message out.”
Arway said he hopes the effort succeeds. Stocked trout provide all kinds of benefits, offering recreation and supporting economies and promoting mental health, he said. But they're expensive to raise and distribute, too.
“We've created a certain expectation among our anglers over a long period of time. And I fully support that (stocking) program,” Arway said. “But you've got to make decisions about what you can and can't afford.”

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

Big business locally

How big is trout fishing in Pennsylvania?
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission sold just more than 859,000 licenses in 2013. About 70 percent of those people also bought a trout stamp or a combination Lake Erie/trout stamp, either of which is required to fish in waters stocked with trout.
Western Pennsylvania supplies a lot of those trout fishermen.
Allegheny County alone accounted for 54,489 fishing licenses sold in 2013; no other county sold more than 32,000. Westmoreland County accounted for 23,845 fishing licenses sold, Cambria 17,671, Butler 16,166, Fayette 13,986, Beaver 10,229, Washington 9,060, Indiana 9,022, Armstrong 8,685, and Somerset 8,239.
Allegheny also led the way statewide with 35,987 trout stamps and Lake Erie/trout stamp combos in 2013.

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