By John Finnerty
Bowing to public pressure, the state 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 of 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.
“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, including those in Linesville and Corry.
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; 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 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 electricity generating 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 electricity generating power plants use 6.4 billion gallons of water a day.
Fish and Boat Commission Executive Director John Arway, in arguing for these type of fees, has called Pennsylvania’s failure to charge large water users “highway robbery.”
Haluska said that 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.”
Republican state Rep. Greg Lucas, whose Fifth District includes western Crawford County, another member of the House Game and Fisheries Committee, said that he too doubts that the water charge will get any momentum.
Lucas said there have been some other measures discussed as possible ways to generate additional money, including increasing the cost of boat registration and doing a better job recapturing gas tax money paid by boaters.
Now, the Fish and Boat Commission is supposed to get its share of gas tax dollars based on estimates provided to the state by boaters when they file their registrations. But Lucas said that state officials believe that most boaters do not understand why they are being asked how much gas they use for boating so they underestimate the amount. As a result, the Fish and Boat Commission does not get as much of the tax revenue as it should.
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 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 that the problem might not be so bad if the state had devoted more of the money it is getting from an impact fee charged 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.
Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.