Trout plant cuts in 2015 are really up to state legislature
By JIM MATTHEWS www.OutdoorNewsService.com
In early November, the Department of Fish and Wildlife posted a document on its web site explaining why it would be cutting the poundage of trout stocked by about 50 percent in 2015, and it has caused an uproar within the fishing community.
Stafford Lehr, chief of the fisheries branch for the DFW, explained that for the past four years, the DFW had approximately an additional $2 1/2 million per year for the trout hatchery program. That money was granted in the budget process, allowing the DFW to “spend down” a hatchery improvement account that is allocated money each year. For the funds to be spent, the legislature must approve the DFW’s request to use this money.
Under the guise of budget cutting, the legislature has not granted the DFW use of these funds for a number of years, allowing the fund to grow and accrue interest. While the money was stockpiling, the DFW hatchery program was suffering. Fewer and fewer fish were being planted because costs were skyrocketing. Finally, four years ago, the legislature allowed the DFW to spend money in that account.
“For the first time, we showed dramatic increases in the number of fish we were able to plant, closer to the 2.75 pounds per license sold that was mandated [by the legislature]. We’ve been living on that increased authority the last few years,” said Lehr.
But the additional money allocation from the hatchery fund ends with this fiscal year (which ends June 20, 2015), meaning the DFW is losing the additional $2 1/2 million it had been authorized to spend the past four years.
While the DFW is planning to go back to the legislature and ask them to allow the agency to use this money annually into the future, it could not “plan” on that funding. A new stocking regime had to be crafted that would allow the state to operate on its regular hatchery budget allocation without the additional that money. The net result would be a 50 percent reduction in the poundage of fish that could be raised.
Lehr said the hatchery program has faced unprecedented additional costs it has never had to incur before. While the increasing cost of fish food is a major one, he said that water and energy costs have also skyrocketed. He used the state’s well-known Fillmore Hatchery as just one example. There water costs there have increased 600 percent. To comply with new state and federal regulations, there is comprehensive water quality monitoring that was never done before. The DFW also has to monitor and treat for invasive species. And to meet the requirements of a hatchery lawsuit settlement, they now only raise triploid (or sterile) rainbow trout for the catchable program, at a greater cost. The hatchery program has also been plagued with a fleet of older hatchery trucks that were forced to comply with state air quality regulations. The older vehicles weren’t designed for these retrofits, and stocking runs that only took five hours in the past now take 10 hours because the vehicles have to be stopped and allowed to cool down so major damage doesn’t occur. That means twice as many trips and overtime on the longer runs.
All of these things have hammered the DFW hatcheries, and the additional $2 1/2 million in annual funding really was a shot in the arm to the near-$19 million hatchery budget.
So in the 2015-16 budget year, the DFW is planning to rear 1.6 million pounds of trout as opposed to the 3 million plus is has going through the system this fiscal year.
Lehr said he and the staff have looked hard at how and where to cut the stocking program. They decided to plant about the same number (or even more) fish overall, but they would average much smaller. In many waters, the DFW would plant vastly more, smaller trout where the state could let the natural forage within a lake or river grow the trout to catchable and bigger sizes. (An example would be Lake Crowley. This water receives the vast majority of its plants in the fall as fingerlings -- two to three-inch fish -- or subcatchable -- four to six-inch fish. By trout opener, most of these trout are 10 to 12 inches, and by the end of the fishing season, they are 14 to 18 inches. Those that survive into another season in the lake provide a true trophy fishery in Crowley with 22 to 25-inch trout -- fish that weigh four pounds or more.)
Lehr said that waters like urban Southern California fisheries would continue to receive about the same number of the larger-sized catchables they have come to expect from the agency the last few years.
While Lehr said the DFW hasn’t completed a master management plan that will explain which waters will get fingerlings or subscatchable versus one-pound catchable trout, he thinks that in the long haul the fishing quality will be comparable.
“I’m focusing on the bigger picture,” said Lehr. “We’re planning for more put-grow-and-take fisheries while others will get the same size catchables. We should have the same number of trout going out, but they will just average smaller.”
This, of course, will not come close to the 2.75 pounds of trout per licensed angler the legislature set as a goal for the agency. The goal was being met (or nearly so) by the DFW the last few years when the legislature was giving the agency annual access to the special hatchery fund.
So the cuts are not a done deal. While the DFW has to start planning for less money (the trout are produced on about a 1 1/2-year pipeline), Lehr said the DFW was also planning to go back to the legislature early in 2015 and ask for access to the special hatchery account every year. This would make the funding more predictable and the DFW would be better able to meet the legislature’s own mandates and recommendations on trout plants.