Bowing to public pressure, the Pennsylvania 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 commission said it expected to save by closing the hatcheries in Centre and Potter counties.
Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Cambria County, 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 because the state had recently spent millions in grant funds fixing up the Bellefonte hatchery in Centre County.
“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 state fish and boat commission.
Two options to come up with a plan to find another source of the $2 million appear to be on the table:
•Charging a fee to businesses that use large amounts of water
•Raising the cost of a fishing license
Fred Bohls, of Mechanicsburg, chairman of the legislative committee for the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited, said 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, the license fee hike option would be “a last resort.”
Bohls said he prefers generating funds by charging businesses that use large amounts of water.
In Pennsylvania, by far, the largest users of water are electric companies.
Fish and boat commission executive director John Arway, arguing for these types of fees, has called Pennsylvania’s failure to charge large water users “highway robbery.”
Haluska said he believes the fish and boat commission ought to consider the increase in the cost of a fishing license, which is now $21 for a Pennsylvania resident. The last fishing license cost increase was 2005.
Researchers from Penn State found increases do tend to deter some people from buying new licenses. But the researchers found that in most cases, the hike still generates enough increased revenue to more than compensate for the losses from anglers who decide not to renew.
There were 852,944 fishing licenses bought last year, a 5.8 percent increase over 2011. However, the number sold in 2012 was still down 26 percent compared to the all-time high of 1990, when there were 1.16 million 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 commission. Last year, the agency brought in $19.5 million from the sale of 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 is getting from an impact fee charges to natural gas companies. 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.