Bowing to public pressure, the Fish and Boat Commission has reversed course and no longer intends to close two trout hatcheries that produce 750,000 fish a year.
But the decision only creates room for more controversy as the agency has given itself two years to come up with a new way to generate the $2 million a year the Fish and Boat Commission said it expected to save by closing the hatcheries in Centre and Potter counties.
Rep. Gary Haluska,
D-Patton, the Democratic chairman of the House game and fisheries committee, said the decision is good news. Haluska had criticized the planned closings, not only because they would have reduced the number of trout available for fishing enthusiasts, but also because the state had recently spent millions in grant funds fixing up the Bellefonte hatchery.
The reversal by the agency clearly related to the public pressure about the planned hatchery closings, Haluska said.
“They got push back from the Legislature that it’s not going to be a good idea to take away 750,000 trout,” Haluska said.
The two hatcheries that had been on the chopping block are among 15 operated by the Fish and Boat Commission in Pennsylvania.
The Fish and Boat Commission has given itself two years to come up with a plan to find another source of the revenue.
Two options appear to be on the table: Charging a fee to businesses that use large amounts of water, or raising the cost of a fishing license.
Fred Bohls, of Mechanicsburg, chairman of the legislative committee for the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited, said that he is worried about the long-term implications of raising license fees.
“Every time you raise license fees, you lose people, and some (of) them you never get back,” he said.
Eric Levis, a spokesman for the Fish and Boat Commission, said that because of the prospect of losing anglers over a license fee increase, that option would be “a last resort.”
Bohls said that he prefers the notion of generating money by charging businesses that use large amounts of water.
In Pennsylvania, by far, the largest users of water are electric companies.
The natural gas industry, which uses water in the fracking process, had been the fastest-growing user of water, but that industry’s impact is dwarfed by the power plants.
At its peak, the gas industry was using 12 million gallons a day, while electric power plants use 6.4 billion gallons of water a day.
Fish and Boat Commission executive director John Arway, in arguing for these types of fees, has called Pennsylvania’s failure to charge large water users “highway robbery.”
Haluska said he doubts that any effort to collect a fee on industrial water users will be any more popular than the idea of closing the hatcheries.
“They’ve been cutting taxes for corporations,” Haluska said. “I don’t know if it will get any traction.”
Haluska said he believes the Fish and Boat Commission ought to to consider the increase in the cost of a fishing license, which is now $21 for a Pennsylvania resident. The last time the state raised the cost of a fishing license was in 2005.
Researchers from Penn State found that license increases do tend to deter some people from buying new licenses. But the researchers found that in most cases, the increase still generates enough increased revenue to more than compensate for the losses from anglers who decide not to renew their licenses.
Fishing enthusiasts bought 852,944 fishing licenses last year, a 5.8 percent increase over 2011. However, the number of licenses sold in 2012 was still down 26 percent compared to the all-time high of 1990 when there were 1.16 million fishing licenses sold in Pennsylvania.
The year before the last license fee increase, the state sold more than 900,000 licenses. It has not broken 900,000 since. But the increased cost of a license did translate into more revenue for the Fish and Boat Commission. Last year, the agency brought in $19.5 million from the sale of the 852,944 licenses, compared to $15.4 million in revenue from the 909,140 licenses sold in 2004.
Bohls said the problem might not be so bad if the state had devoted more of the money it receives from an impact fee charge to natural gas companies to the commission. The state collected more than $200 million from gas companies in 2012. Most of that money went to local communities and counties where there is gas drilling, but $25 million went to state agencies. The Fish and Boat Commission’s share of that revenue was just $1 million.
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