Mark Nale: Hook, line and stinker

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s trout-stocking trucks began their pre-season runs on March 1. However, the end is in sight for trout deliveries originating from the Bellefonte hatchery.

On Jan. 23, the PFBC announced that it plans to reduce operating costs by $9 million over the next four years. A portion of this reduction will come from closing two trout hatcheries — Bellefonte and the smaller Oswayo facility in Potter County. This move will mean 700,000 fewer stocked trout each year. It is expected to reduce annual expenses for the agency by approximately $2 million.

The two hatcheries will be phased out over the next two years, with the final closure expected in December 2014. Eighteen employees will be affected by the closures — nine at each facility. The PFBC plans to offer affected employees jobs at other PFBC hatcheries; therefore, no furloughs are expected.

According to an agency news release, the move was made to meet projected wage, health-care and retirement obligations for its employees and to fund basic infrastructure needs.

I spoke with PFBC executive director John Arway to get more details.

“It is important that everyone understands that we didn’t create this financial crisis,” said commission Executive Director John Arway. “The legislators made the decision not to invest in the state pension plan and now they are passing that on to us. If someone presents you with a $9 million bill, you have got to pay it.”

According to Arway, all state agencies will have to come to grips with the same issue. The Fish and Boat Commission is starting early.

“In the past, my predecessors in this position have spent down our reserves and then asked the legislature to increase license fees,” Arway noted. “That worked for a while, but beginning in 1990, license fee increases were followed by permanent losses of anglers. In fact, we have lost one fourth of our license buyers in 20 years. Raising license fees won’t work anymore.”

Considering the transportation costs to stock trout, why close Bellefonte — a centrally-located trout hatchery?

“Our Bureau of Hatcheries put together a matrix of cost factors for us to consider in reaching this decision,” Arway explained. “Oswayo was an obvious choice for closure because, of all our trout hatcheries, it has the highest cost per trout produced. Bellefonte and several other hatcheries were close in our analysis, but considering Bellefonte’s on-going wastewater treatment issues and the number of trout produced, it was the next logical choice for closure.”

According to commission figures, the Oswayo trout hatchery annually produced about 245,000, while Bellefonte produced approximately 540,000 adult trout, including brook, brown, rainbow and golden rainbow.

“Believe me, this was a very difficult decision. I know people who work there,” Arway said. “If we had selected another hatchery to terminate, we would have had to close three facilities in order to incur the same savings, instead of closing these two. This was strictly a business decision. I just felt that there was no other choice.”

Pennsylvania once boasted more than 1 million trout anglers and the PFBC stocked more than 5 million trout annually. As license sales declined, the number of stocked trout has dropped to 4 million, then more recently to 3.2 million. The next wave of cuts will likely drop the number of stocked trout to between 2 and 2.5 million a year. Trout anglers will begin to feel the pinch in 2015 — the spring after both hatcheries close. How this will affect future license and trout stamp sales is anyone’s guess.

With fewer trout to stock, the agency is also faced with the decision of how to reallocate the reduced number of trout. Arway expects the high-use, so-called “destination” streams, such as Kettle and Pine Creeks, to continue to receive about the same number of trout. Other streams will receive fewer trout, and as many as 50 streams could be removed from the stocking list for one reason or another.

“Clearly, the days of driving 400 trout halfway across the state to stock a small stream that sees only a few anglers are over,” Arway noted. “Some hard decisions will need to be made in order to get the highest recreational value possible from a dwindling number of trout.”

In addition to the $2 million the PFBC expects to save by closing the two hatcheries, it estimates saving another $1 million by not enrolling a new class of waterways conservation officers.

“WCOs will just have to cover more territory,” Arway said. “The Bureau of Law Enforcement is developing a plan that involves larger districts and possibly eliminating one officer in districts where there are currently two.”

Just what is in store for the Bellefonte Hatchery? If no new revenue stream is developed, the Oswayo and Bellefonte hatcheries will be mothballed by the end of 2014. What happens after that, Arway is not sure.

“Our plans are flexible, but as a responsible agency, we must balance our expenses with our income,” Arway noted. “If the legislature finds a new stream of revenue for the agency, services will not need to be cut and the hatcheries could stay open. We are also looking at the possibility of leasing the facilities to private operators. Because of the Federal money involved in building those hatcheries, I’m not even sure that we can do that.”

The Bellefonte facility is one of three Centre County hatcheries owned by the PFBC. The other two, Benner Spring and Pleasant Gap, are safe from the budget ax for the time being. However, you can do the math. About $9 million in savings must be realized by 2016. The hatchery closings will save $2 million, reducing the number of waterways conservation officers in the field will save another $1 million. Many more cuts will need to be made unless another revenue source is developed for the Fish and Boat Commission.

“Having to make these drastic cuts is both my biggest disappointment and biggest challenge since taking this job,” Arway said.

Ultimately, it will be the public that will determine what will happen to this public service agency and the level of services that are provided.