Sunday, January 18, 2015

PA Anglers, Commissioners Debate Stocking Over Native Trout, Protecting Clean Waters From Industrial Impacts

The presence of wild trout generally indicates clean water.
This wild brown trout was released on Yellow Creek,
Bedford County, which is currently being considered for a
Class A Wild Trout designation
The Fish and Boat Commission's intent to act on two related items at its meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Harrisburg has alarmed, disappointed and confused anglers on opposing sides of the issues. But a less apparent fact could trump that unease in the end.

Among a slate of other fisheries-related matters, the commission's 10-member board will vote on a proposal to designate 10 stream sections as Class A Wild Trout waters, removing them from the trout-stocking schedule and adding them to an existing list of about 600 Class A streams around the state that have wild trout populations.

None of the 10 streams under consideration flow in southwestern Pennsylvania. Streams pending for the Class A rating are parts of Fishing Creek (Clinton County), Yellow Creek (two sections in Bedford County), Little Lehigh Creek (two sections in Lehigh County), Monocacy Creek (two sections in Northampton County), Martins Creek (Northampton), Penns Creek (Centre) and Pohopoco Creek (Carbon).

Some trout anglers were initially dismayed, while others were elated, at the prospect of those Class A designations. An established PFBC policy has been to ban the stocking of hatchery-bred trout on Class A waters, relying on naturally reproducing trout to provide angling recreation. All of the 10 stream sections in question had been stocked by the PFBC, some as recently as 2014.

But PFBC surveys confirmed the streams also supported wild populations. When the agency began considering the change last year, many anglers felt that ending the stocking would hurt the quality of fishing there.

"The Little Lehigh and Monocacy are heavily fished creeks. My customers fish there and were not happy when they heard [the Fish and Boat Commission] might stop stocking," said Willie Marx, owner of Willie Marx's Bait and Tackle just outside Allentown, Lehigh County. "How many of these guys are going to fish around here if they designate for wild trout only? They should keep stocking, for one thing because a lot of kids fish there and you've got to keep kids interested."

Some of Marx's customers took up a pen or struck a keyboard and confirmed his observations. When PFBC sought public comments on its Class A no-stocking policy before its September 2014 meeting at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmington, Fayette County, the agency got 95 letters and emails opposing any reduction in stocking the streams being considered for Class A designation -- more than four times the number of responses supporting the standing Class A no-stocking policy.

As a result, in September, the PFBC board considered allowing stocking on Class A streams if certain considerations were met. Those include high angler use, the absence of wild brook trout and streams to be stocked were not on the agency's original list of Class A waters. The board eventually discarded all of those criteria and voted to amend its policy to say that Class A streams would not be stocked except, "with rare exceptions," provided that the sitting commissioners consented to the stocking. That consent could come later this week after the decision to add the 10 streams to the Class A list.

The policy change to allow Class A stocking in "rare" instances pleased Marx and his customers in the Lehigh Valley, at least temporarily. But it disappointed other anglers who maintain that artificial stocking degrades existing wild trout populations.

"Although our organization liked the Class A designation concept, we did not like the idea of stocking Class A. But we did not oppose it, provided the criteria initially considered were in place," said Ken Undercoffer of Clearfield and cochair of the Trout Management Committee for the Pennsylvania State Council of Trout Unlimited. "Then [PFBC] started backing up and changing the rules. Apparently rules and past policy mean nothing.

"Hatchery trout can be a valuable recreational resource when used intelligently, but it makes no sense to take those expensive fish and plant them in streams perfectly capable of supporting fine trout fisheries on their own. Montana figured that out 40 years ago."

Undercoffer's reference was to a decision made in 1974 by the Montana Fish, Parks and Wildlife agency to cease nearly all stocking of trout streams. Montana continues to stock lakes and some urban waters but allows its internationally famed trout streams to develop their own wild fisheries.

"Wild trout numbers increased, just as our studies said they would," said Dick Vincent, the fisheries biologist who advocated Montana's no-stocking policy, as quoted in an interview published in Montana Outdoors magazine. "I think the biggest [impact] was that people began to see wild trout as a valuable, limited resource, and that the state needs to protect habitat to conserve that resource."

Vincent's observation may manifest one aspect of these administrative shifts that all anglers, regardless of their views on stocked versus wild trout, can agree on.
But there's another consideration.

Streams recognized as Class A Wild Trout waters qualify automatically as High Quality waters under state Department of Environmental Protection regulations. Developers and resource extraction activities must comply with stricter regulations to gain DEP permits and continue operating within High Quality watersheds.

At least three of the 10 streams PFBC is considering for Class A designation lie outside the perimeter of the Marcellus Shale formation in central and northern Pennsylvania, a fact that may have made PFBC willing to absorb the criticism it attracted in the no-stocking turmoil that accompanied the proposed Class A designations.

"Since the inception of shale gas development, we've seen activity with the potential to impact wild trout resources in remote areas and on a scale we'd never seen before," said John Arway, Fish and Boat Commission executive director. "The Marcellus industry has advocated that we assess trout streams where they might operate and know what's there so they can design their activities around what we need to protect."

Arway said his agency had always been more than willing to undertake those trout searches, but that it would take 125 years for agency staff alone to examine all the state's stream miles.

"So we got creative, and with funding from the Mellon Foundation and manpower from colleges and universities around the state we launched our Unassessed Waters Initiative," Arway said.

Cooperating university teams have documented wild trout populations in numerous stream sections where they had not been known to exist.

"Because of the regulatory implications of Class A, whenever our partners find a qualifying Class A wild trout population, our own biologists go back out and confirm," Arway said. "It provides an extra level of science for these decisions and the regulatory requirements that follow."

A spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition was unavailable for comment, but the group has previously stated its approval of the Unassessed Waters Initiative.

"There are actually two parts to this whole situation, and [PFBC commissioners] hope that anglers will see that," said Len Lichvar, Fish and Boat commissioner representing Region 2 in Southcentral Pennsylvania. "The first is whether or not to designate Class A. The next issue is how to manage those streams as recreational fisheries. We may have different opinions on the stocking issue, but our data shows these 10 streams and many others deserve the additional level of protection brought with Class A."

Lichvar also said his understanding was that the upcoming vote on whether to stock applied only to the 10 streams proposed for Class A designation, and that the original 600 waters would not receive hatchery trout.

"But that's something that any future board could change at any time," he said

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