Donations purchase food, and volunteers raise all of the trout in the Three Point Sportsman Cooperative Trout Nursery. Collectively, the cooperative nurseries raise and stock about 1 million trout per year. - MARK NALE - For the CDT
Late last month, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) sent a letter to all of the cooperative trout nurseries in Pennsylvania. To say that the letter was not well received is an understatement.
"I couldn't believe it. Is this letter a joke?" commented Richard Biggans, president of the Three Point Sportsmen Club and cooperative nursery in Clarence, Centre County. "I go along with a license increase. They need that, but to ask the co-ops for money is just ridiculous."
The letter, signed by all ten Fish and Boat Commissioners, informed the clubs running trout nurseries that two of the three staff support positions would be cut beginning July 1. This would drastically reduce the Cooperative Nursery Unit services available to respond to emergency calls or fish health issues.
To keep the technicians' positions, the letter states, "Approximately $200,000 is needed. Soliciting funds is only a temporary measure and full funding will be restored once the legislature approves a license increase.
"We ask that you consider donating to the Cooperative Nursery Unit and Executive Director John Arway has pledged that the Commission will match every dollar to reach the $200,000." The letter requests that the clubs convey their intentions by June 11.
One staff member, fearing for his job, has already left his position with the PFBC.
Don Anderson, who manages two cooperative trout nurseries in Somerset County, was so upset by the letter that he traveled several hours to meet with the Fisheries Committee of the Fish and Boat Commission in Harrisburg, on June 14.
"It cost our clubs over $15,000 to run the two cooperative nurseries last year, and in addition, we invested at least 3,200 volunteer man hours just to raise trout for the state's anglers," Anderson said. "How much is enough? I don't think that the clubs should have to fund those support positions."
Together, over 160 co-ops raise approximately 1 million trout that are stocked for anglers to enjoy. The Commission supplies fingerling trout and the cooperative nurseries buy food as well as feed, care for and stock the trout. In addition, they must pay for all of the upkeep of their facilities.
Brian McHail and the two agency staff members under him help deliver the fingerlings, inspect the fish and the nursery facilities, and help the clubs care for any trout that get sick. The trout are inspected again before they are stocked in the spring.
The inspections are to ensure that diseased trout are not stocked in Commonwealth waters and, for the co-ops, the consultations with staff and the services to care for sick fish are critical. In 2017, the unit made 177 emergency visits to clubs.
"If we have another bad summer, even three people can't deal with all of the problems," Biggans stated. "If the cuts are made, one person will never be able to keep up, and lots of co-op trout will die. The Commission's fingerlings and our efforts would be wasted."
Anderson estimates that 200,000 to 300,000 cooperative nursery trout might die if the support positions are cut.
Cecil Houser headed the PFBC Cooperative Nursery Unit from 1988 until he retired in 2007. "I always had two people working with me. There is no way that one person will be able to keep up with emergency requests," Houser said. "Proposing to cut two positions is just not right."
Tim Christine, nursery manager for the Bald Eagle Sportsmen Club -- just across the Centre County line into Blair County -- also expressed frustration.
"We give and we give and we give, just to raise and stock trout for anglers, and now they want us to donate money to the Fish and Boat Commission," Christine said. "I think that we already give enough. This letter is a low blow."
Mark Jackson, also with the Bald Eagle club, said, "Many of these same nurseries sponsor free fishing events for thousands of youth each year, and these events promote trout fishing in Pennsylvania."
The involvement with youth is really quite extensive. Bob Miles, the nursery manager for the Laurel Conservation Club in Lawrence County, started his cooperative nursery so that he could involve teenagers in community service and the outdoors.
"I am worried about the future of the cooperative nurseries," Miles said. "The cooperative unit technicians were always very helpful. I thought that we were important to the Commission, but now it seems like we are a burden."
Although nursery managers wonder about the significance of their efforts, Arway says that he understands their feelings. "I agree with them," he said in a phone interview. "I don't think that we should be asking the cooperative nurseries for money. The last thing that we want to do is cut services, but we must live within our means.
"I asked staff to come up with ways to cut $2 million in agency programs and staff. We are already down 18 conservation officers, and we will soon be short another two due to retirements. Across the board, staff is down 10 to 30 percent in all departments. The Co-op Unit cuts were one way to cut."
Running a cooperative nursery costs a lot of money. "Last year, we bought $16,000 to $18,000 worth of trout food," Christine said. "Our new raceway, including the wire covers, aeration system and roof, cost over $150,000 -- and that money was all raised through donations."
Christine not only takes the request for donations as an insult, he thinks that cutting the co-op budget is the result of fuzzy thinking.
"I know that cuts need to be made, but the cooperative nurseries raise and stock trout more cheaply than the Commission. It doesn't make sense to cut the support to the co-ops," Christine said. "If that is all that they can do to run this program, then some changes need to be made at Commission."
According to Arway, not all cooperative nurseries rejected the request for money. However, the number of clubs donating and the total received are small.
Anderson learned at the meeting that just eight clubs out of 160 had donated money, and reported that the PFBC was far short of its goal.
The 1 million trout raised by cooperative nurseries make up about 25 percent of the total trout stocked -- even more if a Commission trout hatchery is closed. Problems resulting from decreased Commission services to the co-ops could have a significant impact on stocked trout fishing next spring.
Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com.