An ugly thought: closing fish hatcheries

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Stocking 2It’s about time for the Fish and Boat Commission to start stocking trout; that gets underway on March 1. Might the future hold less hatchery fish, though? Or at least fewer hatcheries?

The Pennsylvania Game and Fish and Boat commissions are physically close, in terms of their headquarters buildings. One is just down the street from the other near Harrisburg.

They’re apparently close in another way, too.

The Game Commission recently closed two of its four pheasant farms, citing budgetary constraints. Hunting license prices haven’t increased since 1999. As a result, officials there said, the agency just can’t afford to run them.

The Fish and Boat Commission operates 13 hatcheries. Its leaders have also said they’re struggling to make ends meet, as fishing license fees haven’t increased since 2005.

Might it someday have to close a few hatcheries because of money?

One commissioner thinks it’s time to prepare for that possibility.

“I know it’s not a popular topic, but it’s one of those we may have to discuss, like it or not,” said Norm Gavlick of Luzerne County.

The hatcheries are old; some date back more than a century.

What’s perhaps surprising is how old some of the equipment they’re still using is. Brian Wisner, the commission’s chief of trout production, said some of the generators in use date to the 1960s.

When they break down, that age causes real issues.

“The last time we had one go down at Bellefonte, when the manager called up the generator folks, he was just laughing on the other end. He said he hadn’t had those parts for years,” Wisner said.

The commission has had to rent generators in the past until repair parts could be found, he said. That, he added, is a very expensive proposition.

Gavlick asked if the commission has done an internal review of its facilities to get an overview of what its maintenance needs add up to. The answer, Wisner said, is no.

An outside hatchery consulting firm called FishPro took a look at the hatcheries back in 2001-02. It recommended $52
million in upgrades then.

The commission performed some of those upgrades, the sheer “enormity” of the recommendations was just too much to take on completely, Wisner said.

That’s understandable, Gavlick said. But 15 years later, he added, the commission is in no better position than it was. In fact, with no license increase yet enacted, he said it’s likely worse off.

It’s time to start thinking about what to do if that doesn’t change, Gavlick said.

Maybe, he said, the commission should evaluate its hatcheries to see if it might be possible to close a few and still raise the same number of fish for stocking.

Commissioner Bill Sabatose of Elk County said he doesn’t think that would work, though. For starters, hatcheries are limited by the amount of waste they can produce, he said. Unless the state Department of Environmental Protection changes those limits, adding fish to hatcheries isn’t an option, he said.

The cost of moving fish father – to stock the whole state from fewer facilities – might gobble up any savings realized by closing facilities, he added.

Those may be legitimate issues, Gavlick said. But the commission should start preparing for any “hard decisions” it might have to make now, not later, he concluded.

“I think we need to be ready to address this,” Gavlick said.

As for the game farms that are closing, Game Commission executive director Matt Hough said what is to become of them remains to be decided.

The commission will salvage equipment from each and use it elsewhere. The northwest game farm’s watering system – which is better than the one on the southwest game farm – will be moved to that latter facility, for example.

The commission will also be swapping out other equipment and vehicles so that the two games farms still in production – and which will be attempting to raise more birds than in the past – can maximize production.

But as for the properties themselves, no decisions have been made. They could become state game lands, Hough said.
The northwest game farm could be sold; it adjoins Erie National Wildlife Refuge, he said, so perhaps the federal government might want it.

“There are just a lot of different options that are available,” Hough said.

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